What Are The 'Basic' Emotions — And Are They Really Universal?

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What Are The Basic Types Of Human Emotions And Are They Universal?
Love, Self

Understanding basic emotions in ourselves leads to deep connection and happier relationships.

Understanding your emotions and being able to identify them in the present moment is an essential tool for creating happy relationships that thrive and stand the test of time.

In relationships, we all want to feel understood as much as we want to understand others. Knowing what we are feeling and being able to accurately communicate it while being present and compassionate toward what others are feeling helps to create deep connection.

What are the basic types of emotions?

As human beings sharing a world together, we are seeking to better understand each other and are asking constantly asking, “How can we all get along better?” n the pursuit of the answer to that important question, there has been a lot of research done debating the idea of universally recognized facial expression of emotions.

Though reading other’s facial expressions is part of the puzzle, it actually misses the mark in creating understanding and authentic connection.

RELATED: 10 Strange Emotions You've Probably Experienced (But Didn't Have A Name For)

In his article, "The Universally Recognized Facial Expressions of Emotion," Cole Calistra gives a general history of the research.

Beginning with proponents of the universality concept he notes that, in 1872, Charles Darwin wrote, “facial expressions are universal, not learned differently in each culture.”

In 1960, psychologist Paul Eckman identified a list of 6 core or primary emotions he believed to be universal:

Eckman's list of emotions, with corresponding facial expressions, includes the following:

  1. Joy or 'Happiness: "symbolized by raising of the mouth corners (an obvious smile) and tightening of the eyelids"
  2. Surprise: "symbolized by eyebrows arching, eyes opening wide and exposing more white, with the jaw dropping slightly"
  3. Sadness: "symbolized by lowering of the mouth corners, the eyebrows descending to the inner corners and the eyelids drooping"
  4. Anger: "symbolized by eyebrows lowering, lips pressing firmly and eyes bulging"
  5. Disgust: "symbolized by the upper lip raising, nose bridge wrinkling and cheeks raising"
  6. Fear: "symbolized by the upper eyelids raising, eyes opening and the lips stretching horizontally"

Additionally, a seventh emotion — "contempt, symbolized by half of the upper lip tightening up (using what is called the risorius muscle) and often the head is tilted slightly back" — is sometimes considered to be universal as well, and was added to the list above by Eckman in the 1990s.

In 1980, psychologist Paul Plutchik expanded on Eckman's concept, creating what he called the "wheel of emotions."

His design includes 8 primary and opposite (or bipolar) emotions:

  • Joy versus sadness
  • Anger versus fear
  • Trust versus disgust
  • Surprise versus anticipation.

Plutchik's wheel of emotions also "makes connections between the idea of an emotion circle and a color wheel. Like colors, primary emotions can be expressed at different intensities and can mix with one another to form different emotions."

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All of these theories hold that certain facial expressions are universally interpreted as indicating specific emotions.

Calistra also notes the work of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory, which found there may have been some bias in previous experiments and that these lists of emotions may be not be truly universal.

In 2014, the team of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of Essex and the University of Namibia conducted a study in which participants from the United States and the Himba ethnic group from the Keunene region of northwestern Namibia were asked to sort images of posed facial expressions into piles by emotion type.

In contrast to the Americans involved, members of the Naminian tribe were only able to categorize expressions as falling into the categories of either “laughing” and “looking.” Their language and culture impacted the way they interpreted what they saw on the faces of others.

It seems that both camp’s positions are partially true — facial expressions can convey positive and negative emotions, but the context from which an observer is perceiving those expressions impacts the meaning they find in another person’s facial expression.

It's important to note that none of these theories take into consideration the important factor of body language.

As we all know, someone can appear to be happy and complying — smiling and nodding yes, for example — while their body language, like crossed arms, may convey a totally different message of resistance and anger.

If the experts cannot agree on a universal list of basic emotions and people send mixed messages body language, how can we use emotions as a guide to connection in relationships?

Lucky for us, we don’t actually need to know what others are thinking and feeling by reading them.

There is a much quicker and direct route to creating connection and understanding — and it starts with each of us as individuals.

RELATED: Understanding These 6 Emotions Can Change How You Take Care Of Yourself

Instead of focusing our attention outside ourselves, interpreting what is happening out there, we can turn our attention inward and experience what is happening inside ourselves.

In order to authentically and truthfully connect with another human being, we need to be clear about what we are feeling so we can accurately communicate our experience.

I find it easiest to work with the emotion model proposed in the book "The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success."

Authors Dethmer, Chapman and Klemp identify these 5 basic emotions:

  1. Anger
  2. Sadness
  3. Joy
  4. Fear
  5. Sexual (or creative) feelings

Every other feeling is either a nuanced version of one of these basic emotions — like rage, which is intense anger — or a combination of two or more of those basic emotions — like frustration, which is a combination of fear and anger.

They go on to describe emotion in the following way: “Emotion is 'e-motion.' Energy in motion. At its simplest level, emotion is energy moving in and on the body. Or said another way, feelings are physical sensations.”

This is good news!

If feelings are physical sensations, that means two things:

  • Feelings are merely a natural and automatic physical reaction to our thoughts.
  • Being natural and automatic, they are neither good nor bad, just something our bodies do to tell us what we are thinking.

This makes our job of knowing what is going on inside ourselves a whole lot easier when the information is right there, literally at our fingertips, and we let go of judgement and just observe.

The first step is paying attention to physical sensations. The second step is communicating what we feel to others.

For instance, in an argument with another person, instead of saying, “You’re so mean” and exchanging insults, turn your attention inward to the physical sensations you find present.

From that awareness, it would be more accurate to say, “I feel an intense ache in my chest and I also feel nauseous. I feel sad and scared.”

That kind of statement clearly conveys what you are experiencing and at the same time does not inherently invite defensiveness or challenge.

It invites the other into your experience. It invites understanding and connection.

Whether the other person is willing to do the same is not guaranteed, but it is certainly more likely to happen when someone is being invited into an experience rather than being criticized.

Regardless, staying in touch our own emotions creates more connection to our own experience and certainly more understanding.

What better way can there be to make ourselves known to others than to know ourselves first; and, what better way to connect with others than to show up from a state of compassion and understanding?

From that state of mind, those expressions you see on other people's faces may look less like a puzzle to solve and more like an invitation to connect and understand.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Encourage Your Partner To Express Their Feelings

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Michelle Thompson is a life coach who specializes in helping individuals and couples improve their positive energy flow, reconnect with their inner selves and their partners, and embrace their capacity to love more fully. Sign up for a complimentary coaching session and visit her website for more information.