Emotion is a subjective state of mind. Emotions can be reactions to internal stimuli (such as thoughts or memories) or events that occur in our environment.
Emotions are not the same thing as moods. A mood is a state of mind that predisposes us to react a certain way. For example, someone in a low mood is more likely to feel irritated when they trip on a rock. Someone in a good mood is more likely to feel amused by the incident. In general, emotions are reactions to an event, while moods are present before and throughout the event.
Emotions by themselves are neither good nor bad. They are simply reactions. However, the way we act (or don’t act) on our emotions can strongly affect our well-being.
Types of Emotion
Because emotions are subjective, people often disagree on how to categorize them. Some people claim humans only have six basic emotions. Others argue we have up to 34,000 unique types of feelings.
One common way to categorize emotions is through Dr. Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel. Plutchik arranges the eight basic emotions in a rainbow wheel. Each emotion is placed directly across from its “opposite”, like so:
According to Plutchik, many feelings are simply stronger or weaker versions of the eight basic emotions. For instance, rage is a more intense type of anger, while annoyance is a milder type. More complex emotions can be created by combining the eight basic emotions. For example, blending joy and trust together can create love.
Emotions in the Body
Our emotions are controlled by a group of brain structures called the limbic system. The limbic system releases chemicals which spur on our emotional states. The type of emotion we feel depends on which chemicals have been released. For example, the hormone oxytocin allows us to experience feelings of love.
Emotions not only reflect our mental states—they also alter our body chemistry and functioning. For example, when we feel fear, our sympathetic nervous system activates. Our pupils dilate, our heart rate goes up, and we may start sweating.
Conversely, our bodily states can also affect our emotions. If you are angry or afraid, you can take deep breaths to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This system slows your heart rate and helps you calm down.
Cross-cultural research suggests each emotion manifests differently in our body. In one 2014 study, participants were exposed to words, stories, or facial expressions intended to prompt a specific emotion. They were then asked to color in parts of their body that they felt were increasing or decreasing in activity.
Each type of emotion left its own unique “blueprint” on the body. For example, anger caused one’s head, chest, and arms to greatly increase in activity. In other words, participants tended to breathe heavily, get sweaty palms, and develop flushed faces. Meanwhile, people experiencing disgust reported more activity around their throat and abdomen (likely reflecting nausea). Happiness was the only emotion which caused the entire body to have an increase in activity.
Universality of Emotion
Certain emotions may be named in some cultures and unnamed in others. Here are a few examples of emotions which don’t have direct translations in English:
- Gunnen: Dutch word for feeling happiness for someone else’s good fortune (opposite of schadenfreude).
- Ilinx: French word for the guilty pleasure of causing minor mischief.
- Malu: Indonesian word for the insecurity and awkwardness you feel when surrounded by people of higher status.
- Torschlusspanik: German word for the fear that life is passing you by.
- Umay: Tagalog word for the weariness you feel after having too much of a good thing.
Some cultures prioritize certain emotions over others. In Western cultures, people tend to aim to maximize positive emotions such as happiness. Meanwhile, in many Eastern cultures, people attempt to strike a middle ground between positive and negative emotions.
Why Do We Have Emotions?
Throughout history, philosophers have pondered whether humans truly benefit from emotion. There are many cases in which strong emotions cloud our judgment and make us do things we later regret. Would it not be better to operate purely on logic?
However, many researchers believe humans typically benefit from having emotions. In the past, our emotions motivated us toward certain survival strategies. Each basic emotion had its own purpose. For example, when our ancestors encountered a dangerous animal, fear prompted them to run away to safety. If they encountered an obstacle on their way home, anger motivated them to get rid of the problem instead of giving up. And upon arriving safely at home, feelings of joy would reinforce the behaviors that aided their survival.
That said, there are times in which emotions cause more problems than they solve. People with clinical anxiety may become paralyzed by fear rather than motivated by it. Individuals with depression can feel so much sadness that they lose the ability to feel joy. Even people without clinical diagnoses can become overwhelmed with emotions.
In many cases, a compassionate counselor can help individuals control distressing emotions. In therapy, individuals can learn how to recognize when feelings are clouding their judgment and bring those emotions down to a manageable level. They may also learn healthy ways to cope with these feelings.
If intense emotions are affecting your ability to enjoy life, you can find a counselor here.
- American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- (2016, June 15). 10 extremely precise words for emotions you didn’t even know you had. The Cut. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2016/06/10-extremely-precise-words-for-emotions-you-didnt-even-know-you-had.html
- Karimova, H. (2019, April 7). The emotion wheel: What it is and how to use it. Retrieved from https://positivepsychology.com/emotion-wheel
- Lomas, T. (2019). Provisional lexicography—By theme. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/332849215_Lexicography_listed_by_theme#pf2f
- Nummenmaa, L. Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Hietanen, J. K. (2014, January 14). Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(2), 646-651. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/111/2/646
- Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Last Updated: 10-21-2019
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Sally HighSeptember 20th, 2015 at 3:23 AM
I agree with the above article yet tend to also strongly believe that fear is the number one core emotion driving all others. Fear of losing something or fear of not getting what I want. These drive negative emotions is sadness, anxiety, depression, etc
PhilOctober 7th, 2017 at 2:23 PM
Hi Sally ,
Agree totally that the emotion or feeling of fear is, for the majority of people, the number one driver of their decisions, actions and behaviours. I’d also add in ‘hope’ as possibly the other major driver in most instances where fear isn’t involved. Together both fear and hope cause people to act, react or change both in the short term (including immediate actions) and over the long term.
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Miss PetraFebruary 10th, 2019 at 5:06 PM
This is an excellent article about feelings and emotions. The love I am sending must be received! I am concerned that my friends, family, and even my therapist are not in touch with my feelings, although I am. Do you know how you come across to others? Appearance is be very important, but looks can be deceiving. Any tips on being my best self in therapy, and sharing the love, compassion, knowledge, beauty, and sorrows of my life with others? Talking with you, but do you hear me? Do you feel me? Do you care? We care a whole lot, and I’m getting older, too. Let’s keep in touch.
NicoleSeptember 14th, 2020 at 11:31 AM
I really enjoyed reading this and it is so true and refreshening.
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