What are primary emotions?
Feelings and emotion types are central to our well-being as living creatures. The 7 basic types of feelings and emotions include fear, contempt, disgust, sadness, anger, happiness, and surprise.
Have you ever wondered if you’re feeling happiness like the person sitting across from you at the table? Perhaps you’re baffled by the way your coworker always seems to look at you with contempt.
Feelings and emotion types are central to our well-being as living creatures, but lay people and researchers alike often have trouble understanding why and how they work the way they do. Emotions are an evolutionary mix of neurobiology, physiology, and even behaviors we’ve learned from others.
According to the American Psychological Association, nearly everyone in the world, regardless of culture, feels and understands primary emotions in the same way. The list of primary emotions differs from source to source, but there are usually four to 10 emotions included in this category.
Why do some people enjoy watching scary movies and strapping themselves into heart-pounding rollercoaster rides? Fear is a powerful emotion that causes physical reactions such as a fast heartbeat and sweating, and it makes us feel alert and ready to take action.
Fear can also let you know when you’re about to step into — or are already in — a situation that may harm you. Most people (and animals) will do anything to avoid frightening situations, though the adrenaline junkies among us may enjoy the short-term rush and mental clarity this emotional state brings.
Contempt may be subtle or obvious, but its presence in relationships often leads to their downfall. It involves looking down on someone else, seeing yourself as better than them.
You may only feel contempt occasionally and in relation to certain events (such as when a boss you don’t respect tells you what to do), or you may live in an almost constant state of contempt. If you do, it’s probably hard for you to make friends and form healthy relationships.
Disgust isn’t just based on your five senses, though there is a big sensory component to this emotion. You may feel grossed out by the sight of mayonnaise on a sandwich, averse to the aroma of a strong perfume, or put off by the concept of someone’s ethical failing at work, but it all boils down to the same core emotion: disgust.
It may not always be easy to recognize when someone is sad, but it is a universal emotion. You may direct your sadness inward and brood for days, while someone else may lash out and combine sadness with anger. Sadness is simply a feeling on the spectrum of being unhappy. On one end, you may feel mildly disappointed that your favorite restaurant took a dish you liked off of their menu, and on the other, you may feel intense grief at the passing of a loved one.
Unlike the more self-contained emotions of fear or sadness, anger is more active and is directed at something or someone.
An angry person might try to fix their situation by lashing out physically or verbally, but anger isn’t always bad. Experiencing anger can help us understand when we are feeling burnt out, betrayed, or let down by someone else.
Happiness, or joy, can occur when you are by yourself, but this feeling is typically connected to and shared with other people that you like or love. You may feel a rush of pleasure, feel more connected to others, and feel good about yourself and the world when experiencing happiness.
Surprise is an instantaneous, instinctual reaction to something you didn’t expect. It’s easy to recognize a surprised person, regardless of their beliefs or culture, because of their wide-eyed look of shock — even if this expression only stays on their face for a split second.
What are secondary emotions?
Secondary emotions require context to understand. They don't mean the same thing in every culture around the world. In one culture, someone may feel pride — a secondary emotion — because they were acknowledged in front of a group for a significant contribution. Another person in a culture that values keeping one's achievements to oneself may feel mortified when they are called out in public.
Jealousy is another secondary emotion that’s usually very specific to a person’s culture and upbringing. Some researchers, though, believe that jealousy and love, specifically the type of love that parents feel for their children, are primary emotions rather than secondary.
What are complex emotions?
Both primary and secondary emotions are easily recognized regardless of where you live, what religion you practice, and what language you grew up speaking. Complex emotions, on the other hand, are mixtures of both primary and secondary emotions that are more difficult to decode. For example, if you feel simultaneously fearful of something — a person, animal, or even a concept — and angry at the same time, this complex mix of emotions may register as hate.
What are criticisms of the basic emotions framework?
Number of basic emotions
Like any interesting theory in emotional psychology, the framework of having basic emotions hasn’t been well-received by everyone. Basic emotions are considered universal because they help us survive as a species.
This definition leads to many researchers arguing over the definition of what can be classified as a “basic” feeling. Some high-profile psychologists and anthropologists have proposed that there are only four basic emotions, while others insist that there are at least eight. Some want to include love and anticipation, while others want to include as few core emotions as necessary.
Going beyond basic emotions
Another interesting point that modern researchers in this field have made is that several emotions share characteristics and facial expressions and that many exist on a continuum. On one side, you feel sadness, while the opposite of sadness is happiness.
Others see fear and anger as two expressions of the same core feeling because they have similar chemical reactions in the body. Regardless of the framework you subscribe to, it’s important to realize that there are several universal traits and that we all express certain feelings in similar ways.
All emotions are normal, but sometimes, having an overwhelming emotion is not beneficial. You should note that this list of basic and complex emotions doesn’t include emotional disorders such as depression and chronic anxiety. If you’re struggling with unmanageable emotions, or if you think you need help identifying the reason you feel the way you do, talk to your doctor or counselor. Seeing a professional who has experience in navigating the complex and fascinating world of emotions may be one of the best things you can do for yourself.