Welcome to Emotions 101! Here are some answers to questions you may have about your emotions, and some short, succinct answers to them. The science of emotions is fascinating, and there’s more to emotions than the answers we provide here. So look around our site, check out our glossary of emotions, and see what research we’re getting up to as we try understanding out emotions a bit better each day.
Emotions are psychological response systems – they are partly the result of neural (brain) processes, linked with bodily response systems (breathing, heart rate) that organize thought and action. Thoughts, and assessments of our current situations gives rise to emotion, but emotion may also influence how we think about certain situations. Emotions also influence behaviours – usually causing us to either approach, or avoid certain situations. Emotions are also relational and social in nature. We see, interpret, and use emotion to guide our interactions and communications with one another.
We have six basic emotions, which are distinctly observable through our facial expressions. These emotions are argued to be ͚universal͛– that is, they vary only minimally across cultures, and can be easily labelled by individuals observing them. The six basic emotions are: joy, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. Some researchers also consider contempt to be a basic emotion. The six basic emotions listed first are distinguished from one another from how they are expressed on our faces.
Joy is an emotion we feel when situations are safe, or when we experience something pleasant or rewarding. Joy is related to a concept called psychological safety. One theory of positive emotions state that joy broadens our scope of possibilities, encouraging us to play and explore. A smile is often considered the universal expression of joy.
Sadness is an emotion we feel when we experience loss, pain, or suffering. Sadness is particularly felt when we see no way of reclaiming what we have lost. The expression of sadness is a cry for help, telling us that we require assistance and reassurance. Sadness can be observed through the downturning of the eyebrows and mouth; crying is a clear expression of sadness and distress.
Anger is an emotion felt when we perceive a situation as being unjust, unfair or by a situation that offends us. Injustice and being treated unfairly are typical triggers of anger, as are situations when we are insulted or demeaned. Anger may also be caused by unpleasant situations – foul smells, noises and even painful sensations can trigger anger. Anger is accompanied with a downward eyebrow slant, gritting or baring of teeth, and glaring eyes.
Fear is an emotion resulting from seeing situations or targets as threatening and harmful. You might think of fear as our emotional alarm system, warning of us things within the environment that may cause us injury or harm. Much of what we fear today takes the form of approaching threats – deadlines, upcoming obligations, potentially stressful situations. Fear expressions are expressed through open eyes, downturning of the mouth, and raised eyebrows.
Surprise is a brief, fleeting, and short-lived emotion resulting from situations that are unexpected. This emotion is not simply ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, and is thus sometimes referred to an ambivalent emotion. How we make sense of, interpret, and evaluate the unexpected may then result in surprise then causing us to feel pleasantly surprised, or shocked. Surprise expressions are most notably expressed through open eyes, raised eyebrows, and an open mouth that suggests gasping.
Disgust is an emotional response towards objects seen as potentially carrying diseases which may cause us illness if ingested. Disgust has been referred to as the emotion that serves as the ‘guardian of the mouth’, so it’s probably not surprising that rotten food and excrements are often cited as triggers of this emotion. Disgust’s facial expressions are notably observed in the wrinkling of the nose ridge, and on occasion, sticking out one’s tongue – both clear indications of distaste and revulsion.
We don’t know for certainty, but it’s a safe bet that there are at least as many emotions as there are words for them! We’ve only listed the six (or seven, if you count contempt) basic emotions here – emotions that are deemed universal since they are expressed in roughly the same way on our faces regardless of culture and cause similar bodily and neurological activation signatures. You may have thought of emotions such as embarrassment, jealousy, love or envy as other emotions not listed as being ‘basic’ or universal. Different cultures, and the language they use to describe emotions adds so many more different emotions and feeling states that don’t necessarily have a direct equivalent in English. The German word Schadenfreude, for example (which literally means ‘harm/damage-joy’) is an emotional state experienced when we see others – usually those we envy or dislike, experience some form of misfortune. Our language – and the words we have, influences the many varieties, and intensities of our emotional experiences and expressions.
Since emotions are psychological responses systems, they influence our thought and emotions in a variety of ways. For instance, how we feel about a certain issue influencing how favourable we evaluate the merits (and demerits) of arguments made about a certain issue. This partly explains why getting people to change their views on matters such as politics and religion are so difficult. There is a strong emotional investment in such issues, and they are unlikely to be swayed by facts or reason. Our decisions are also influenced by emotion – we tend to be fairly risk adverse in general, and rely on our emotions to warn us about possible threats before making a decision. Emotions also have a direct and strong influence on our actions – you might recall times in which you acted on the spur of emotion, were startled because of a sudden loud noise, or lost your temper while driving. In such situations, emotions are meant to trigger impulsivity and reactivity – helping us respond quickly in the interest of our safety and survival.
As impulsive and reactive emotions tend to be – you can exert some form of control over them. You can choose not to react on impulse to say, feelings of anger. Cultivating the ability to do so, however, takes practice. Effective healthy management of one’s emotions is not simply suppressing (i.e. ‘bottling up’) our emotions. Rather, we take the necessary steps and approaches to regulate our emotions – choosing the best approach to how we respond to emotions as and when they arise. Learning how to regulate your emotions is part of being emotionally intelligent. Some new research also suggests that practices such as cultivating mindfulness can help individuals be more aware of, and able to respond appropriately to emotions as and when they arise.