The Five Universal Emotions
You have a newfound respect for emotions, knowing what they are, realizing their usefulness and also recognizing the ways in which they don’t always represent an objective truth. Now, let’s dig into the five universal emotions.
This blog is my narrative summary of the information jam-packed into the Atlas of Emotions.
What is the Atlas of Emotions?
On their website, this is how they describe it:
The Dalai Lama imagined "a map of our emotions to develop a calm mind." He asked his longtime friend and renowned emotion scientist Dr. Paul Ekman to realize his idea. Ekman took on the creation of the Atlas alongside his daughter, Eve Ekman, a second-generation emotion researcher and trainer. The Atlas represents what researchers have learned from the psychological study of emotion. The simple, but not easy, goal of this Atlas is to help us be aware of our emotions. Awareness of our emotions means understanding how they are triggered, what they feel like and how we respond. Awareness itself is a strategy, it helps us understand our emotion experiences. We do not want to get rid of our emotions, we want strategies that help us respond in helpful, constructive ways.
If you have a few minutes to click around on a website with really cool graphics and digestible science on emotions in an interactive format, check out the project. There are so many rabbit holes you can go down on this website so click on everything and anything.
I do my best to discuss some of the main points shown in the graphics, with my own additions peppered in. Bullet points and FAQs directly from their website.
Many researchers agree that all humans, regardless of culture, experience the following five universal emotions. I think of these five as umbrellas under which a whole host of emotions, from mild to intense, can be mapped.
Let’s take a closer look at each of them:
Emotion #1: Fear
From Minor to Major: Trepidation --> Anxiety --> Dread --> Terror
In response to: Things that can hurt us because they are dangerous
Purpose: Help us anticipate threats to our safety and protect ourselves
Possible actions: Avoid, freeze, ruminate, scream, withdraw, worry
Examples of Antidotes:
Trepidation: Trying to ponder what can be done. Calming the mind gives the best chance to find the appropriate solution to what caused the trepidation in the first place.
Anxiety: Making a special effort of letting go of ruminations about the past and anticipations of the future.
Dread: Remaining as calm as possible. Seeing what can be done for yourself and for others as well.
Terror: Instilling some calmness in the mind in order to take most appropriate decision.
Fear & Mental Health: Anxiety states involve prolonged fear without knowledge of the source of the threat, and incidents of panic (episodic attacks of severe anxiety).
Associated Mental Health Conditions:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Avoidant Personality Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Emotion #2: Anger
Minor to major: Annoyance --> Exasperation --> Vengefulness --> Fury
In response to: When we feel like we have been mistreated or when we are blocked by something
Purpose: Prompts us to defend or advocate for ourselves.
Possible actions: Quarrel, insult, use physical force, undermine, dispute, brood
Examples of Antidotes:
Annoyance: Patience, open-mindedness, concern for others.
Exasperation: Letting go of grasping. Patience, inner calm. Trying to understand the causes and conditions that brought about the undesirable situation.
Vengefulness: Contemplating the negative effects of taking revenge, in the short and long term; forgiveness not as condoning harmful behavior but as breaking the cycle of resentment and hatred.
Fury: Taking a break, physically and mentally, from the circumstances that brought fury about. Looking at fury itself with the eye of awareness as if gazing at a raging fire and slowly letting it calm down.
Anger & Mental Health: A tendency to cause physical or verbal harm in inappropriate contexts. Anger may be out of control, or passive but persistently preoccupying.
Associated mental health conditions:
Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder
Emotion #3: Enjoyment
Minor to major: Amusement --> Excitement --> Wonder --> Ecstasy
In response: Experiencing pleasure from both familiar and new experiences.
Purpose: To build internal resources and broaden our perspective.*
Just a note here: Until a couple decades ago, positive emotions were not thought to have adaptive purposes. Dr. Barbara Fredriskson changed that with her “broaden and build” theory that shows how the experience of positive emotions actually helps us broaden our perspective (think creativity, innovation, adventure, etc) and build vital resources that help us buffer stressors in the future. Her research (she has a LOT of it) shows how experiencing positive emotions can lietrally buffer some of the harmful physiological effects of negative input (watching something sad or upsetting). Previously thought of as just frivolous emotions compared to the negative ones that keep us safe, her work showed us that positive emotions like pride, awe, and excitement have very important functions. Go Barbara go!
Possible actions: Engage, indulge, connect, savor, maintain, seek more
Examples of Impediments:
Amusement: Tending to see things in negative ways.
Excitement: Feeling pessimism.
Wonder: Grasping, unease.
Ecstasy: Grasping, attachment and any other afflictive mental state (animosity, envy, arrogance, etc.).
Enjoyment & Mental Health: Unlike with other emotions, it is hard to imagine enjoyable emotions contributing to challenges in managing our everyday relationships, work and ability to meet our basic needs. However, pathological enjoyment is quite serious; hyper-elevated states of enjoyment can cause delusions in addition to feeling good, which can lead to destructive behaviors.
Associated mental health conditions:
Mania/Manic episode, Cyclothymia
Emotion #4: Sadness
Minor to major: Disappointment --> Helplessness --> Despair --> Anguish
In response to: Loss
Purpose: To encourage us to slow down and signal to others that we need support.
Possible actions: Feel ashamed, mourn, protest, ruminate, seek comfort, withdraw
Examples of Antidotes:
Disappoinment: Understanding that sadness is natural in appropriate circumstances, but also that experiencing loss is part of life and that one should not let oneself be overwhelmed. Trying to find a place of peace within oneself and thinking of constructive things that could be done instead.
Helplessness: Understanding that a permanent state of sadness will not bring any real benefit. In the case of mourning someone, falling into long-term sadness and despair should not be seen as an homage paid to that person. It is better to pay homage by doing meaningful and altruistic acts.
Despair: Understanding that a permanent state of sadness will not bring any real benefit. In the case of mourning someone, falling into long-term sadness and despair should not be seen as an homage paid to that person. It is better to pay homage by doing meaningful and altruistic acts.
Anguish: Realizing that things and people are impermanent by nature. Revolting against this cannot lead to a fulfilled life.
Sadness & Mental Health: Depression is a well-known type of psychopathology that is reported to affect over 25% of the population. Depression interferes with daily life and causes pain for both the sufferers and those who care about them. Depression is a common but serious illness.
Associated mental health conditions: Major Depressive Disorder, Dysthymia, Bipolar Disorder
Emotion #5: Disgust
Minor to major: Dislike --> Revulsion --> Abhorrence --> Loathing
In response to: Something toxic, physically or socially
Purpose: To warn us to avoid the thing that can poison us
Possible actions: Avoid, dehumanize, withdraw, vomit
Examples of Antidotes:
Dislike: While evaluating impartially the ethical issues, generating compassion so as to find the best way to remedy the causes and conditions that triggered dislike.
Revulsion: Adopting the outlook of a caring physician, who might deeply disapprove certain behaviors but will focus on doing all that is possible to cure a person of their afflictions.
Abhorrence: In the case of toxic substances or situations, doing the best one can to calmly avoid them. In the case of actions, adopting the outlook of a caring physician, who might deeply disapprove certain behaviors but will focus on doing all that is possible to cure a person of their afflictions.
Loathing (self): Using healthy regret to generate the determination to improve oneself; whenever possible, repairing the harm caused to others. Not falling into pessimistic guilt, thinking that one is fundamentally bad and that that is the way one is bound to remain. Not underestimating the potential for change.
Loathing (others): Adopting the outlook of a caring physician, who might deeply disapprove certain behaviors but will focus on doing all that is possible to cure a person of their afflictions.
Disgust & Mental Health: The psychopathology of disgust includes feelings that prevent everyday interaction with the world, the self or others. Disgust can be a paralyzing feeling that makes simple interactions (such as eating) extremely painful if not impossible. Disgust and fear are both thought to contribute to various phobias, such as fear of small animals.
Associated mental health conditions:
Anorexia Nervosa, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Bulimia, Sexual Aversion Disorder
Emotions unfold temporally – on a timeline. They are prompted by a trigger.
Triggers are influenced by our current circumstances and feelings, the event (something happening internally or externally), and our worldview, which is influenced by our prior experiences, personal history and inherited universal scripts about important events. These triggers determine our emotional states and prompt us to action.
We have some agency over the context in which the trigger happens.
-We can, first and foremost, know what our triggers are so we can hold the emotional states that come up for us more lightly and encourage seeking more positive actions to cope. Other research tells us that if we know our triggers, we are less likely to be triggered by them.
-We can also take care of our bodies so that we are less prone to difficult emotional states. You know, hangry? Does anyone else get sleeritable (my mash-up of sleepy and irritable) or sleepressed (my mash-up of sleepy and depressed)? Asking for a friend.
-Lastly, we can work on healing from past experiences, develop self-compassion, and challenge scripts that don’t fit for us (life has to look a certain way) in order to help us not be triggered by the same things. This is usually longer term and harder work but so, so worthwhile. Most of my clients are making this investment in themselves.
Let’s see all the influences on our triggers in action:
For example, if we have continuously skimp on sleep and exercise, struggle with self-esteem, and have many experiences of being rejected as children for reasons outside of our control, even a small comment from a friend can produce a strong emotional state that automatically moves us into destructive self-talk and isolating behaviors – which really only serves to support not taking care of oneself, feeling low, and remembering difficult memories. Instead, if we work to take care of our physical body, which builds confidence, work through our insecurities with a self-compassionate and encouraging approach, and process the rejections we experienced as children in therapy, EMDR is GREAT for this (another blog for another day), the same trigger may not prompt a significant emotional response because we have changed the context.
Moreover, we have the most choice over the actions we take. We can choose actions that are safe, emotionally healthy, and better for us and others in the long-term. We can also take shortcuts that end up giving us temporary relief (like avoidance) but eventually catching up to us (when the reservoir is full and breakdown is inevitable).
Let’s take a look at this in action:
Trigger --> Feeling --> Action
Your partner criticizes you --> Fear --> Imagine them leaving
Your partner criticizes you --> Anger --> Argue
Your partner criticizes you --> Enjoyment --> Gloat
Your partner criticizes you --> Sadness --> Cry
Your partner criticizes you --> Disgust --> Belittle them
A Couple More Emotion Info Bits from Atlas of Emotions:
1. What is the difference between an emotion and a mood?
“Moods are longer-lasting cousins of an emotion that cause us to feel the related emotion repeatedly without any clear trigger.”
Irritable Mood --> Predisposed to becoming angry, easily provoked
Apprehensive Mood --> Anxious that something bad will happen, on edge
Sour --> Generally repulsed
Dysphoric --> An enduring feeling of discouragement or disappointment
Elated --> A long-lasting, generalized good feeling
2. Are personality and emotion tied to one another?
Yes. Certain personality traits are related to specific emotions.
Fear --> A shy or timid person. This personality type is likely to avoid risks and uncomfortable situations. Timid people may perceive the world as full of difficult situations.
Anger --> A hostile person is often angry and is known to others for the frequency of anger responses to the world. Often anger occurs with any frustration; the threshold for frustration is low. Hostile people may experience regret afterward and apologize for their anger, but nevertheless continue to respond angrily. Sometimes hostile people express their anger in a nasty way, using words to demean and cause psychological pain to others. Others are prone to physical violence.
Happiness --> A cheerful person may also be thought of as optimistic. This person sees the world in positive way and can easily be made to laugh and feel enjoyment.
Sadness --> A somber person who is often feeling low may have clinical depression or may simply have more frequent feelings of sadness. This person may hold the perspective that life is hard and difficult.
Disgust --> A person who often feels disgusted by others may have an inflated sense of self-worth and a hyper-aversion toward others. Someone who is disgusted or dissatisfied with everything can be unpleasant to be around.
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I hope this blog helped you get a clear sense for each of the five universal emotions.