A Guide To The Six Basic Emotions

This post was developed via a partnership with BetterHelp.

Among many other traits, humans are set apart from other species because of our ability to experience emotions. A typical day might be filled with a range of emotions, both positive and negative, depending on our experiences and reactions to different events and people. 

A Guide To The Six Basic Emotions

Over the years, psychologists have proposed numerous theories to categorize and describe the emotional experience. One of the most widely accepted theories is that of the six basic emotions. Here, we will explore the history, meaning, and significance of the six basic emotions and discuss how emotional regulation can lead to a higher quality of life. 

What Are The Six Basic Emotions?

In the 1970s, American psychologist and professor Paul Ekman sought to identify whether there were emotions that transcended background, culture, and geographical location. His extensive research revealed that humans share six basic emotions—a concept eventually coined as universal emotions. These six emotions are as follows: 

  1. Sadness: Sadness is an emotion that often results from some type of loss, disappointment, or painful experience. For example, it may be caused by a death, a close friend moving away, or getting a poor grade on an exam. Someone who is feeling mild sadness may have a low mood and feel discouraged, while a person feeling extremely sad might experience anguish and hopelessness. 
  2. Happiness: Happiness can be characterized as a feeling of enjoyment, contentment, and well-being. People may feel happy for many different reasons, such as when reaching a goal, giving birth to their child, marrying their spouse, or spending time with loved ones. 
  3. Fear: Fear is an instinctual emotion that kicks in to help keep us safe in times of danger or uncertainty. This biologically based emotion serves an important role as it prepares our bodies to confront or cope with potential danger or harm—whether that threat is real or perceived. Minor fearfulness may mimic nervousness, while extreme fear can feel like terror. 
  4. Anger: When someone feels angry, they experience a strong reaction to a real or perceived slight from another person. It’s a common emotional reaction to injustice or lack of control over a situation but can stem from a plethora of other sources. Angry feelings can range from slight annoyance to rage or even violence. 
  5. Surprise: Surprise can be a negative or positive reaction to an unexpected or unfamiliar event, person, or piece of information. Given that surprise is a short-lived emotion, there is always a different emotion (or mix of emotions) that follows. Common reasons for feeling surprised include hearing a loud sound, seeing a sudden movement, or receiving something unexpected. 
  6. Disgust: The emotion of disgust refers to the avoidance of something or someone considered offensive, repulsive, or off-putting. People may be disgusted by something they see, feel, taste, hear, or smell. Typical causes of disgust include bodily fluids like vomit, morally reprehensible actions, some foods, and exposure to something dead. 

While there are many other emotions humans experience, these six have been identified as universal, meaning that you can recognize them with anyone anywhere in the world. 

Tips For Managing Your Emotions

While many people learn how to regulate their emotions from a young age, others don’t. The good news is that emotional regulation is a skill you can learn and get better at with time and effort. The following tips may be useful during the process:

  • Therapy: Working with a therapist can help you learn how to recognize unhelpful thought patterns, understand the underlying causes of your emotions, and develop healthier coping strategies to manage them. Therapists aren’t there to judge; rather, they can act as a safe space for you to process your emotions and identify ways to overcome them. Dialectical behavior therapy in particular has a successful track record of helping people experiencing intense emotions. You can learn more about this approach here: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/therapy/what-is-dialectical-behavior-therapy-and-what-can-we-learn-from-this/.
  • Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and feelings in a journal can improve your ability to regulate your emotions as it allows you to express yourself, gain clarity about your emotions, and identify any patterns or triggers you have. Journaling can also help you grow in self-awareness and reflect on the progress you’ve made in managing your emotions.
  • Exercising: Physical activity has been shown to have many benefits for mental health, including stress reduction and improvements in confidence and mood. Exercise causes the release of endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals in the body, while also reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Engaging in regular exercise can help you feel more energized and equipped to cope with the emotional highs and lows of life. 
  • Practicing self-care: Self-care refers to the process of looking after yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. It can include hobbies like playing tennis or habits like getting enough sleep and spending regular time with loved ones. Engaging in self-care can provide a healthy outlet for both positive and negative emotions, allowing you to relax and adopt a more balanced mindset. This can make it easier to cope with stress and regulate your emotions effectively even when facing obstacles. 

The Importance Of Emotions

Humans wouldn’t be humans without our ability to experience, predict, and infer the emotions of other people. Emotions can determine the choices we make, the way we respond to different situations, and how we perceive the world and other people. 

Being able to recognize and understand different emotions can be key to developing and maintaining close interpersonal relationships. When other people perceive that you know how they’re feeling, it can create a sense of closeness and intimacy, particularly when you offer empathy, kindness, or helpful advice. 

Recognizing other people’s emotions doesn’t always come easily or naturally to everyone, but it is a skill that can be improved over time. By developing a higher level of self-awareness, asking questions, and practicing active listening, you can learn how to understand people and interpret their emotions with more accuracy and clarity.