The 6 Different Emotions and Their Primary Uses

Each basic emotion provides unique benefits and serves a different function in day-to-day life.

Published December 28, 2022
happy young females standing outdoors

As humans, we are wired to experience a range of different emotions that help us react, explore, and navigate through the world. On some days, it might feel like we experience every possible emotion, from happiness to frustration to boredom and (hopefully) back to happiness. But really, how many human emotions are there?

Many mental health experts believe that there are six basic emotions that set the foundation for all of the various sentiments we experience. Understanding these primary emotions can be helpful for defining how you feel, but they also affect the way you connect with others, manage conflict, and protect yourself.

How Many Different Human Emotions?

How many human emotions are there? Well, that depends on who you ask. It might also depend on whether you are talking about basic emotions or more complex feelings that can be combinations of different emotions.

Basic or Primary Emotions

The majority of psychologists accept the theory of basic human emotions, which states that humans have foundational feelings that relate to their basic biological needs. However, according to a 2019 study from the Journal of Frontiers in Neuroscience, psychologists haven't come to an agreement on how many basic emotions exist, or which ones they are.

A variety of different theories surrounding basic human emotions have been established over the years. For example, some psychologists, like Carroll Izard suggest that there are 10 basic emotions, while others, such as Simeng Gu believe there to be only four.

Fast Fact

One reason why it is difficult to come to a consensus about the number of different emotions is that psychologists do not agree on the definition of emotion. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines emotions as "conscious mental reactions subjectively experienced as strong feelings usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body."

Despite the conflicting ideas, there is one theory of basic human emotions that is supported by many. It was established in the 1990s by a psychologist named Dr. Paul Ekman who states that there are six basic human emotions. Although not every psychologist agrees with Ekman's findings, it is the most widely accepted theory of basic emotions.

Other Types of Emotions

Although it is commonly believed that there are six basic human emotions, that doesn't mean that there are only six different ways that we can feel. There are also more complex emotions that stem from the foundational ones. It can be helpful to think of emotions like paints. You can mix one or more together and end up with something completely different.

One study from the Journal of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences found that there are 27 distinct categories of emotions. All of these feelings are intertwined and exist on a gradient that keeps them connected.

Some of the different emotions noted in the study include:

  • Awe
  • Contempt
  • Disappointment
  • Nostalgia
  • Pride
  • Shock
  • Suspense
  • Triumph

The above list contains just a fraction of the emotions that were found in the study. Not to mention that it also separated similar emotions, such as fear and horror, into different levels depending on the severity of which they were experienced.

6 Basic Emotions: Definitions, Benefits, and Examples

According to Dr. Ekman, all of the six basic emotions are distinct, yet share a subset of similarities. For example, he believed that all emotions have a quick onset and a short duration. Furthermore, he believed that they occur automatically (without thought) and have consistent responses over time.

Ekman also noted differences between different emotions such as the events that triggered each feeling, the signals that were released from the brain, and how they impacted a person's behaviors.

Need to Know

Through his research, Ekman has outlined the six basic emotions as follows:

  • Anger - Feelings of frustration, tension, or hostility towards someone or something that a person deems unjust.
  • Disgust - An aversion to stimuli that a person believes to be revolting or morally corrupt.
  • Fear - An emotion that is triggered by situations that a person believes to be potentially threatening to their safety.
  • Happiness -Feelings of joy or contentment.
  • Sadness - Feelings of unhappiness, typically associated with losing something a person finds valuable.
  • Surprise - An emotion triggered when something unexpected happens.

Explore the list below to learn more about how the six basic emotions are helpful.

Anger

Anger is an emotion that helps protect you when you're feeling vulnerable. It arises when you're confronted with something you perceive to be threatening. This can be an event, a person, or even a thought. For example, many of us feel anger when someone cuts us off in traffic and we feel momentarily unsafe as a result.

Anger can help boost your internal motivation to overcome certain challenges. In addition, it can increase your levels of adrenaline and prepare your body to fight and protect itself. It's also an outward sign to others that you are upset and have perceived conflict.

Disgust

Disgust is another one of the body's protection mechanisms. It helps keep you safe from bacteria, diseases, and infections by releasing chemicals in the brain that cause you to want to avoid certain situations. Disgust helps you hit the breaks before you become vulnerable to certain hazards.

For example, you might feel disgust when you smell something rancid. As a result, you're not likely to eat it. Alternatively, if you're around someone who constantly talks down to others, you might feel disgusted and offended. As a result, you might speak up or avoid being around that person in the future.

Fear

Fear is the body's alarm system. It sends sirens ringing through your head whenever it detects a threat to yourself or your well-being. It can cause you to become hyperaware of your surroundings, which helps you detect changes in patterns and behaviors in the world around you.

In addition, fear can trigger the body's fight or flight response. This helps prepare you to leave a situation that might be unhelpful or to face conflict head-on. For example, you might experience fear if weather conditions become severe and you may take cover as a result.

Happiness

Most psychologists believe that happiness has a positive impact on the way that people think. For example, when you are happy you might become more creative and open-minded, helping you to build up and explore various resources.

Happiness can help you discover new passions and interests. It can help form new ways of thinking, and even inspire social connection. This can create new skill sets and develop a stronger sense of community. For instance, if you are happy when you go to a musical concert, you may feel inspired to learn how to play a new instrument, join a choir, or simply learn about certain musical artists.

Sadness

Sadness can function as a literal cry for help. It signals to yourself and the people around you that something is wrong and that you might not be okay.

Sadness can also encourage others to show you a bit more kindness and empathy once they see that you're feeling low. In addition, it can also motivate people to make life changes in an attempt to recover or make up for whatever they have lost.

One common sadness trigger is the death of a loved one. But that sadness may provide an impetus to make changes in your own life that honor the person who is gone.

Surprise

Some psychologists believe that the purpose of surprise is to help people focus their attention and take in their surroundings. Then, they can get a better sense of what is going on, and make an informed judgment of whether or not they are in danger. In short, it helps you regain your balance after you're caught off guard.

For instance, if you walk into a dark room and then suddenly see people jump up and yell, the surprise you experience can help you survey your surroundings quickly to determine what is going on. When you see that the people around you are your friends and you remember that it is your birthday, your surprise is likely to shift to happiness.

Why We Need Different Types of Emotions

All emotions serve a function. Even the ones that don't feel so great to experience. They're an important form of communication that allows you to express how you feel. Emotions also provide an opportunity to share that information with the world around you, even if you don't have the words to describe it.

The six basic emotions, in particular, serve essential functions in daily life. Not only do they trigger the release of specific chemicals in the brain, but they're also linked to behavioral changes that are meant to help you navigate through all kinds of situations.

Your emotions are constantly changing throughout the day. Remember that whatever sentiment you are feeling is a normal and valid human emotion, simply because you're human and you're experiencing it. There might only be six basic emotions, but the truth is that our feelings are as complex and nuanced as we are.

The 6 Different Emotions and Their Primary Uses