Emotions are an essential part of human life, but that doesn’t mean that feeling them is always easy. Many different types of emotions influence our decisions, relationships, and overall satisfaction with life.
The emotions we feel can feel intense or sometimes even overwhelming. But being able to identify these feelings, talk about them, and manage them effectively is a critical part of emotional intelligence.
Since our emotional experience is such a core component of being human, it is no surprise that researchers and psychologists have invested a great deal of time and energy trying to understand the different types of emotions. As a result, several different theories have been proposed to explain how many types of emotions we have, how they influence our behavior and the impact they have on mental health.
Basic Types of Emotions
One of the earliest theories of emotion is the one that most people are probably at least somewhat familiar with. Psychologist Paul Eckman proposed that there are six basic types of emotions.
Eckman identified these basic emotions through the study of facial expressions, specifically the microexpressions that are conveyed in mere fractions of a second.
The six emotions he described were happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust.
Happiness is one of the most pleasant and desired emotions. It is typically defined as a pleasant feeling that is accompanied by:
As an emotion, happiness is associated with certain “feel-good” neurotransmitters and hormones, including serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These chemicals help induce feelings of enjoyment, contentment, pleasure, and excitement.
Happiness is an emotion that is also connected with positive health outcomes. Research suggests that happier people have better immunity, better overall health, better relationships, and increased lifespan.
Sadness can be a brief or lingering emotion that leads that can be expressed through social withdrawal, low mood, lack of energy, and crying. It is often associated with:
Sadness is often situational and passes once the circumstances change. It can also be caused by mental health conditions such as depression.
How people cope with sadness can also affect how severe this feeling is and how long it lasts. For example, social withdrawal and ruminating on negative thoughts can worsen and prolong sadness, while seeking social support and distraction may help minimize it.
Anger can often be an intense and unpleasant emotion expressed through frowning, speaking loudly, and glaring or physical outbursts of aggression such as throwing objects, kicking, or hitting. It is also often marked by:
While it is a normal emotion, it is important to find ways to channel it in appropriate ways. Research has shown that venting your anger often reinforces the feeling, which can make anger worse and make it more likely you’ll feel angry again in the future.
Healthier ways of dealing with anger include using relaxation techniques, exercising, taking a break, or finding a distraction.
Surprise is an emotion that can be positive or negative and is characterized by:
Positive surprise is often accompanied by feelings of happiness, while negative surprise may trigger feelings of fear or anger. The response to surprise also varies depending on the context and whether the situation is perceived as positive or negative.
Fear is an emotion that is marked by feelings of anxiety, dread, and danger. It is often a response to real or perceived threats. The types of fear we experience can vary depending on the situation we’re in. Common types of fear include:
- Fear of flying
- Fear of heights
- Social anxiety
While fear is a normal emotion, it can sometimes become overwhelming. When this happens, it can lead to a panic attack. If you experience frequent or severe panic attacks, it may be indicative of an underlying anxiety disorder.
Disgust is an emotion that is characterized by a strong feeling of aversion or repulsion. It is often triggered by things perceived as unclean, dangerous, or offensive. Common types of disgust include:
Disgust is often considered an evolutionary response that helped our ancestors avoid things that could make them sick. However, it can also be a reaction to moral offenses. For example, people may feel disgusted towards others who have committed crimes or acted in an immoral way.
Other Theories of Emotion
However, other researchers have suggested many more different emotions or emotional combinations.
The Wheel of Emotion
For example, according to psychologist Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, the basic emotions can mix and combine in the same way that the primary paint colors can be combined to create all the colors of the rainbow.
According to Plutchik’s wheel, the eight basic emotions are:
Each of these emotions can be mixed with other emotions to create more complex emotions. For example, anger mixed with fear could create anxiety, while joy mixed with trust could create love. Joy and anticipation combine to create optimism. Disgust and anger combine to form contempt.
Plutchik suggests that people experience as many as 34,000 different types of emotions.
The Facial Action Coding System
Another theory, called the facial action coding system (FACS), suggests that there are actually only four basic emotions: anger, happiness, sadness, and fear. According to this theory, all other emotions are simply combinations of these four.
FACS suggests that the human face is capable of making only a limited number of expressions. Researchers have identified 46 different muscle movements in the face, which are grouped into 24 different action units (AUs). These AUs can be combined to create all the possible facial expressions of emotion.
Other researchers using a tool known as Generative Face Grammar have also found evidence for the existence of just four categories of emotion. (https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(13)01519-4)
More recently, researchers have found evidence for a more conservative number, describing 27 different categories of emotions that exist on a continuous gradient.
The 27 emotions that were identified by researchers are:
- Aesthetic appreciation
- Empathetic pain
- Sexual desire
A List of Emotions
Regardless of how researchers categorize emotions, it can be helpful to learn more about how to identify and describe what you and others are feeling. Some research has found that attaching a label to your emotions can help lessen the intensity of negative feelings, which can be helpful when you are struggling with difficult feelings like anger, sadness, or jealousy.
Recent research has found that affect labeling can also increase the intensity of positive emotions.
Some terms that you might use to describe how you are feeling include:
There is no definitive answer to the question of how many types of emotions exist. Some theories suggest that there are only four basic emotions, while others find evidence for as many as 27 different emotions. Regardless of how they are categorized, it is clear that emotions are complex and nuanced. Learning more about the different types of emotions can help you better understand your own feelings and the feelings of others.
Bushman BJ. Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2002;28(6):724-731. doi:10.1177/0146167202289002
Cowen AS, Keltner D. Self-report captures 27 distinct categories of emotion bridged by continuous gradients. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2017;114(38):E7900-E7909. doi:10.1073/pnas.1702247114
Lawrence EM, Rogers RG, Wadsworth T. Happiness and longevity in the United States. Soc Sci Med. 2015;145:115-9. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.09.020
Vlasenko VV, Rogers EG, Waugh CE. Affect labelling increases the intensity of positive emotions. Cogn Emot. 2021 Nov;35(7):1350-1364. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2021.1959302. Epub 2021 Jul 29. PMID: 34323172.