what are the emotions: 6 basic emotions

What Are Emotions? The 6 Basic, Universal Emotions

Written by Valentina Dragomir, Psychotherapist | Fact Checked | See our editorial process

“Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.” says Elizabeth Gilbert in “Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia”

And she is right. Our emotions have the ability to influence our actions. But what are emotions and how do we gain control over them?

Awareness is where all starts.

The answers to these questions are two reasons I started this post. I want to help you understand and recognize your emotions. And I hope this post will help you gain the knowledge and answers you need.

We will discuss some fundamental aspects about emotions, such as their purpose, impact on behavior, body, and decisions.

Last but not least, we will discuss the six basic, universal emotions after Dr. Paul Ekman, an important researcher in the field of emotions also known for being the scientific advisor for the show “Lie to me” and the movie “Inside out”.

As a bonus, we will explore a list of emotional equations described by Chip Conley in his book “Emotional Equations.”

Let’s begin!

What are emotions?

In psychology, emotions are complex psychological states that are felt as physical and physiological changes, and that influence our thinking and behavior.

Each person experiences their emotions as responses to internal or external events: for example, memories, bodily sensations, illnesses, relationships, other people, natural phenomena, and other external things or events.

Because emotions originate in the limbic system, they have a greater impact on behavior than cognition and rational decision making have. Cognition and decision making are processed by the neocortex. The limbic system is a part of the brain that encompasses several areas and develops completely until the age of 3 years. While the limbic system is fully developed at 3 years old, the neocortex and its functions develop gradually until the age of 28.

Emotions engage a complex activity in the brain and can influence or distort the cognitive functions such as sensation, perception, attention, thinking and memory.

For example, when we feel fear, it can be hard to focus, and the stimulus that triggered this emotion can be seen as more dangerous than it actually is. When we feel angry, our thinking may be affected and we may have less rational thoughts.

Besides the fact that emotions can influence mental processes, they cause changes in our whole body – from muscle constrictions, changes in facial expression, changes in voice tone or energy level. We will see below how the 6 basic emotions feel in the body, what changes they determine in our facial expressions and behavior.

What is the purpose of emotions?

Emotions have very important purposes. They can help us mobilize and act, make decisions, avoid dangers, live and thrive, and, last but not least, understand others.

Emotions mobilize us to act and survive

The word “emotion” is drawn from the Latin word “ēmōtus”, the past participle of “ēmoveō”. This word consists of “ē” – “out” and “moveō” meaning “to move”. Thus, “emotion” means moving out / moving.

Emotions really tell us to move and motivate us to act, to do something. Let me show you some examples:

  • Shame or humiliation can make us want to hide. It is common for people who feel ashamed to say they “want to disappear” (from feeling shame).
  • Disgust mobilizes us to get away from what is perceived as a danger of contamination.
  • Anger guides us to fight, threaten or intimidate.
  • Hatred causes us to want to annihilate or destroy.
  • Love is mobilizing us to get closer and connect with the loved one.
  • Fear can make us defend, run away, avoid the dangers, in order to survive.
  • Surprise can activate our instinct for survival.

Emotions can help us make decisions

We can make different decisions depending on the emotions we feel. For example, if we feel bored, we can decide to watch a fun show to feel good. If we are happy, our decisions may differ a lot from moments when we are sad.

Emotions can influence what clothes we choose to wear, the look we want to have, how we treat each other, what we eat at lunch, how we spend our free time.

The decisions that we make, driven by positive emotions, can help us thrive. Decisions taken when we have negative emotions can have a devastating effect on us or our relationships.

It is very important that no definitive decision is taken when you feel strong emotions (both positive and negative). Because emotions can have a dominant impact on us, it’s good not to let them control us.

We can learn how to recognize emotions, their effect and how to manage them effectively.

Manage your emotions by following these 7 steps
Managing Emotions Infographic

Emotions help us understand others, and let others understand us too

Emotions that we recognize in others give us a lot of information about them. By observing and accepting the emotions of others, we can learn what they like or dislike, what needs they have, what impact certain events have on them, and how we can help them.

This information helps us to understand them and we can adjust our behavior to respond appropriately. For example, when we see our friend is sad, an appropriate answer is to ask what happens and what we can do for him/her.

Likewise, the emotions we show to others can help them understand us.

If we avoid showing our emotions to others, they may not know what is happening to us, they may feel confused and fail to understand why we behave the way we do sometimes.

By expressing our emotions through behavior, body language or verbal language, we give other people important information. This information can help them adapt their behavior and respond appropriately to our needs.

In order to find the new world we needed a map, and in order for us to find a calm mind we need a map of our emotions”. Dalai Lama

Which are the basic, universal emotions?

Recognizing your emotions right now may seem overwhelming, especially when you haven’t been paying attention to them. But it’s actually pretty simple. And below you will find all you need to know to get started.

The basic universal emotions for human beings are six, as researcher Paul Ekman discovered in 1972: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. I will detail each of them below.

But first, here is a comprehensive list of emotions (yet incomplete), that you can use to develop your emotion vocabulary.


ce sunt emotiile: Fericirea
Happiness – facial expression

Happiness is an emotion characterized by a state of well-being that occurs when something good happens to us, we do something that makes us feel good, when we reach our goals, or we are happy with our life.

How happiness feels in the body

Happiness is experienced differently by each person. Usually, people who feel happiness describe body reactions as a feeling of chest expansion, feeling light, energized, feeling tingling on the skin.

How happiness shows on our face

Our emotions are visible on the face. This is no secret.

Emotions can be recognized and differentiated by the clues that each emotion leaves on each person’s face. Therefore happiness can look similar to the expression we see on the woman’s face in the above image: the smile closed or open (with exposed teeth), raising the cheeks, diminishing the eyes or lifting the lower eyelid and forming the so called happiness wrinkles.

How happiness manifests in our behavior

People behave differently when they are happy. For example, they can lift their arms up and shout for happiness, cry, smile, start dancing or run around. All these are manifestations of happiness.


ce sunt emotiile: Tristetea
Sadness – facial expression

Sadness is an emotion often labeled as negative. Sadness is the opposite of happiness and appears when we go through difficult events in life: loss in general (loss of a loved one, of a relationship or object, resources, status, health, job or business), when injustice is done to us, when we are hurt or disappointed by someone, when we fail at something.

Sadness is not depression. There are many differences between sadness and depression. For example, sadness is an emotion and depression is a mood disorder. Another difference is that emotions don’t last long, but moods can last a very long time.

How sadness feels in the body

It is common that when we feel sad we also experience physical symptoms in the body. Such symptoms can be for example heart or chest pain. Sadness can also feel like inner emptiness, lacking energy or a sort of heaviness that keeps pressing down on our chest.

How sadness shows on our face

The facial expression of the man in the image above is in my opinion representative for sadness. His mouth corners point downwards, the inner corners of his eyebrows are a little bit lifted. Usually, a person who feels sadness looks down and they could have wrinkles between their eyebrows and on the forehead. When sadness is intense, the chin can tremble and push on the lower lip. This reaction can be seen more commonly in people or children who cry.

How sadness manifests in our behavior

Sadness can make us behave differently than when we don’t feel sad. For example we can feel a lack of energy and enthusiasm to do activities, we can cry, shout out of pain and make uncontrolled gestures.


ce sunt emotiile: Frica
Fear – facial expression

Fear is an emotion that appears as a response to an external threat that can put our life and physical integrity in danger.

Fear is not anxiety. The two may feel like they are similar, but they are not the same.

Fear comes when the threat is near us. Anxiety comes based on the threat we imagine. Fear is an emotion that lasts for as long the dangerous stimulus exists nearby. Anxiety can last a very long time without a defined danger object.

How fear feels in the body

Fear is an emotion rooted in the survival mechanisms of the brain. When this emotion is present, the body can start shaking, the heart can start beating faster, your mouth can feel dry, and you can have gastrointestinal symptoms.

How fear shows on our face

When we feel fear, the eyebrows can be lifted, the eyes wide open, the mouth closed or ajar. The forehead can be tense and wrinkles can appear between the eyebrows or on the center of the forehead.

How fear manifests in our behavior

When we feel fear, our body can manifest one of the three responses to threat or danger: fight, flight or freeze. The purpose of these reactions is survival. The body can become tense, we can shrug our shoulders to protect our neck. We can try to hide, run, or avoid meeting the danger. We could cry as a reaction to threat.


ce sunt emotiile: Furia
Anger – facial expression

Anger is a natural emotion often confused with aggression or violence. The difference between anger and aggression is that anger is an emotion, and aggression is anger manifested in behavior.

We feel anger when our internal set of rules and personal boundaries are violated. When someone doesn’t meet our expectations, when we are emotionally and physically hurt, we can feel anger. Also, we can feel anger when we are treated unfairly or unjust.

How anger feels in the body

When we feel anger we can experience many physical symptoms. For example, the heart can start racing or we can feel inner intense discomfort. We can feel hot, have our face turn red, our limbs can start to tremble, we can have tension in our muscles, and the tone of our voice can change. Anger can increase blood pressure and can make some veins visible under the skin.

How anger shows on our face

The facial expression of the woman from the picture above is a great visual example of anger. Although her facial expression may be associated with an intense feeling of anger, we can see that she shows her teeth. The display of teeth is a common behavior in mammals warning they are ready to attack.

So she is showing teeth, her mouth is wide open (it can also be closed tight and with corners pointing down), her nostrils are dilated, her lower eyelids are tense and slightly raised. The superior eyelids are also tense and pushed down by the pressure of the eyebrows. And lastly, her eyebrows are lowered and can form parallel wrinkles in the space in between.

How anger manifests in our behavior

Anger is an emotion that can lead our behavior. Sometimes we can say or do some things that we may regret later. People can express their anger in different ways, or not express it at all. Often, a person who feels this emotion can curse, shout, hit objects or persons and have a confrontation or aggressive behavior.

You can keep a sword or a gun and never have to use it. So it is with anger. Vijay Eswaran in Sphere of Silence
“You can keep a sword or a gun but never have to use it. So it is with anger”. Vijay Eswaran in Sphere of Silence


ce sunt emotiile: surpriza
Surprise – facial expression

Surprise is an emotion that appears and disappears suddenly. Surprise can have a positive or a negative valence. This emotion does not last longer than a couple of seconds.

Surprise is usually followed by another emotion as a response to the stimulus that produced it.

This emotion can appear as a response to things or events we don’t expect to happen in that moment.

For example, you meet a dear friend on the street (positive valence): you feel surprise because you did not expect to see your friend, and after you feel joy because you love your friend.

If someone scares you (negative valence): you feel surprise, then fear, then even anger because that person dared to scare you and you find that to be quite impolite.

How surprise feels in the body

When we feel this emotion our body activates an automatic startle and adjustment response. If the emotion is intense and has a negative valence, then it can activate the survival responses of the body: fight, flight, freeze. The most common manifestation of surprise in the body is a shiver for a little time, rapid heartbeats, breathing can stop for a very short time.

How surprise shows on our face

As we see on the face of the woman in the image above, surprise usually manifests by raising the eyebrows, opening the eyes wide, the mouth open or slightly open and horizontal lines on the forehead.

Of course, not every person expresses surprise the same way as the woman in the image above. Every person can express their surprise in their own way.

How surprise manifests in our behavior

Surprise determines different automatic gestures and verbal expressions. The gestures can be defensive, lifting shoulders to protect the neck, dropping objects held in the hands, screaming, cursing.


ce sunt emotiile: dezgustul
Disgust – facial expression

Disgust is an emotion that occurs when we come in contact with things that we do not like or we consider to be dirty, repulsive, offensive or revolting.

Disgust is triggered by the experience of one or more of the senses: smell, taste, seeing, hearing, touching. For example, we may feel disgust when something smells bad or has an unpleasant taste. If we see something repulsive, we hear a non-harmonic sound or touch something dirty we can feel this emotion.

How disgust feels in the body

Disgust occurs especially around the stomach area. Some people may feel their stomach hurt or have nausea. There may be pain in the “chest head” and may even, depending on the intensity of the emotion, have the reflex of spitting, coughing, or even actually bullying.

How disgust shows on our face

The are a couple of signs on someone’s face who feels disgust: the upper lip is raised with exposed teeth or not, the lower lip is raised and pushed up by the chin, the chin is in tension and wrinkles may appear on it, the nose can also be raised and wrinkled, especially in the upper part, the lower eyelid is also raised but not tense, and the forehead may be pulling downwards and the eyelids are also being pushed down by the pressure of the forehead. It is as if the whole face gathers and stretches around the nose as a center.

How disgust manifests in our behavior

When we feel disgust we tend to reject those things that cause this emotion by blocking contact, avoiding them or physically removing them. We can cover our nose or mouth to protect us. Other people touch their throat or face, or exclaim words like “yuck” or others.

What is the impact of emotions in the body?

Emotions produce major changes in the body. They send signals to the muscles and organs, accelerate or lower the heart and respiratory rate. Emotions can also have a determining impact on pain tolerance or pleasure. Fear can increase the pain felt, love can enhance the pleasure felt when touched or hugged by the partner.

Emotions are manifested by the appearance of sensations in certain areas of the body. According to a study involving 700 people, a universal map of emotions felt in the body was built.

In the picture below we have two rows of colored silhouettes. The first row shows the physical activation and deactivation of the basic emotions I have described above (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, neutral – in the order of the image from left to right). On the second row, it is shown the activation and deactivation for emotions or complex emotional states (anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame, envy).

The activation of the areas of the body is colored in warm colors: red, orange, yellow. Deactivation is colored in cool colors: dark blue, blue, blue. Black colored areas are areas that have neither been activated or deactivated.

Emotiile in corp

Bodily map of emotions – Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen

Although the results of this study are based on the subjective statement of each participant and not on concrete measurements (such as body temperature changes), I think it highlights how emotions are perceived in the body in general by humans.

I’m curious to see such a map for complex emotions like guilt, jealousy, admiration, hate, gratitude.

Emotions in the brain: specific neuronal patterns of emotions

The studies in the field of emotions continue to reveal important information about the human brain and emotions. Neuroscience is also increasingly involved in the study of emotions.

There are some studies that have used magnetic resonance imaging to study neuronal patterns that activate in the brain when we feel emotions.

One of the studies is done by researchers at Duke University, Kevin LaBar and colleagues. They published in 2016 in PLOS Biology the study on the activation of neuronal patterns in the presence of emotions. The study consisted of the MRI analysis of the brain of the subjects who were asked to rest and not to think of anything special. Thus, in a relaxed state, the subjects had spontaneous moments in which their minds wandered and emotions arose.

In the image below we can see patterns observed specific to each emotion: with red contentment, cu yellow amusement, green for surprise, turquoise for fear, blue for anger, purple for sadness and pink for a neutral state.

Credit: Decodarea Stărilor Emoționale Spontane în Creierul Uman - Philip A. Kragel, Annchen R. Knodt, Ahmad R. Hariri, Kevin S. LaBar
Decoding Spontaneous Emotional States in the Human Brain, Philip A. Kragel, Annchen R. Knodt, Ahmad R. Hariri, Kevin S. LaBar

The researchers used the results of a previous study of neuronal patterns activated for specific emotions and tried to match them with the imaging obtained from their subjects. Based on the MRI, the success rate of predicting the emotion felt by the subjects compared to their subjective statement was 75%. This is a very high percentage for prediction of emotion based on the MRI scans.

Emotional Equations

In his book “Emotional Equations,” Chip Conley offers an interesting point of view to help people understand what emotions are. He writes about the emotions in a mathematical and logical language, creating equations with emotions. Of course, the author does not validate these equations as having a scientific basis, but gives us a perspective, his perspective.

The equations I have selected from the author’s work are as follows:

Emotional Equations from Chip Conley

The first equation that appears in the book is this: Emotions = Life. I totally agree with the equal sign between life and emotion. The fact that we have emotions means we’re alive. The emotions guide our lives, decisions, relationships and give them meaning.

Other equations I found are:

Joy = Love – Fear

Fear = Lack of knowledge – Hope

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Lack of power

Disappointment = Expectations – Reality

Regret = Disappointment + Responsibility

Suffering = Pain x Resistance

Despair = Suffering – Meaning


  • Ekman, P. (1999). Basic emotions, in Dalgleish, T; Power, M, Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons. https://doi.org/10.1002/0470013494.ch3
  • Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen (2013): Bodily maps of emotions, PNAS January 14, 2014. 111, 646-651; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1321664111
  • Emotional Equations: Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success, Kindle Edition, by Chip Conley
  • Decoding Spontaneous Emotional States in the Human Brain, Philip A. Kragel, Annchen R. Knodt, Ahmad R. Hariri, Kevin S. LaBar, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2000106

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1 thought on “What Are Emotions? The 6 Basic, Universal Emotions”

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    Enjoyed reading the blog above, really explains everything in detail, the blog is very interesting and effective. Thank you and good luck for the upcoming blogs.

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