The ‘five basic emotions’

Emotions are the fabric of our daily lives, coloring our experiences, shaping our interactions, and playing a crucial role in our overall well-being. In my practice as a counsellor, I’ve seen firsthand how an understanding of emotions can significantly impact wellbeing – tools such as the feelings wheel can be particularly helpful.

But what exactly are ‘basic emotions‘? In the broadest sense, these are emotions that are universally recognized and experienced by humans. Psychologist Paul Ekman identified these as joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger.

These emotions, he proposed, are basic in the sense that they are hardwired into our biology, universally expressed, and have distinct facial expressions associated with them. (This theory is not without its critics, so a quick online search will lead you to many other theories – which if I get the chance, I will write more about.)

Now that we can name the five basic emotions of joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger, I’ll explore each one in depth. I’ll try to share a bit about their characteristics, their impact on our mental health, and how we can navigate them in a healthy way.

The Basis of Ekman’s Theory

Ekman’s theory emerged from his extensive cross-cultural research. He proposed that these five emotions are basic in the sense that they are:

  • Universally Recognized: These emotions are recognized and expressed in similar ways across different cultures.
  • Biologically Hardwired: They have a biological basis, suggesting that they evolved for their adaptive value in human evolution.
  • Associated with Distinct Facial Expressions: Each of these emotions corresponds to a unique set of facial expressions.

Broader Emotional Spectrum

While I am going to on these five emotions as a starting point, we know that human emotional experience is far broader and more nuanced. Other theories in psychology propose different sets of basic emotions, some including emotions like surprise or contempt, or even blending emotions to create more complex experiences. But for now, let’s look at the emotions Paul Ekman puts forward one-by-one.


Joy is more than just happiness or pleasure. It’s a profound sense of well-being and fulfillment that can deeply enrich our lives.

The Nature of Joy

Joy manifests in various forms, from the quiet contentment of a peaceful moment to the exuberant delight in a celebration. It is often characterized by feelings of happiness, contentment, and a sense of achievement or connection. Joy can be sparked by external events, like a personal accomplishment or a meaningful interaction, but it can also arise from internal sources, such as self-reflection, gratitude, or a sense of purpose.

Impact on Wellbeing

The presence of joy in our lives is crucial for our mental health. It not only uplifts our mood but also helps in building resilience against stress and adversity. Joyful experiences can provide a buffer against mental health challenges, offering a sense of hope and positivity that is essential in the face of life’s difficulties.

Nurturing Joy in Daily Life

Cultivating joy involves both appreciating the present moment and engaging in activities that bring us happiness. It might involve pursuing hobbies, spending time with loved ones, or simply taking time to appreciate the small pleasures of life. Mindfulness practices, such as meditation or mindful toothbrushing, can also enhance our ability to experience joy by grounding us in the present moment.


Sadness, a natural and essential emotion, plays a significant role in our emotional landscape. It’s an emotion that often accompanies loss, disappointment, or hurt, and its acknowledgment and understanding are a really important part of being able to process difficult moments in our lives.

Understanding Sadness

Sadness is more than just feeling ‘unhappy.’ It’s a deep emotional state that can arise from various situations, such as experiencing a loss, facing setbacks, or feeling lonely or misunderstood. It’s characterized by feelings of heaviness, emptiness, or a sense of longing. Unlike joy, which often feels uplifting, sadness can weigh us down, making the world seem a bit grayer.

Sadness vs. Depression

There’s a difference between sadness and depression. While sadness is an emotional reaction to specific events or circumstances, depression is a more persistent experience that affects how one feels, thinks, and handles daily activities. Recognizing this difference is vital, as they require different approaches for management and support.

Coping with Sadness

Dealing with sadness involves allowing ourselves to feel and express the emotion without judgment. Healthy coping mechanisms might include talking about our feelings, engaging in creative activities like writing or painting, or simply allowing ourselves time to grieve or reflect. Exercise and staying connected with supportive friends or family can also be beneficial.


Fear is a powerful and primitive human emotion that plays a critical role in survival. When we perceive a threat, fear triggers a strong response in our bodies and minds, preparing us to either confront or flee the danger.

The Role of Fear

Fear is a response to potential danger that helps protect us from harm. This emotion can manifest in various ways, ranging from mild apprehension to intense anxiety or terror. Fear can be triggered by immediate threats or by anticipation of future dangers, and it’s not always proportional to the actual risk involved.

Fear’s Impact on Decision-Making and Mental Health

Fear can significantly influence our decision-making processes, often leading to avoidance behaviors or risk-averse actions. While this can be protective, excessive or irrational fear can be debilitating, limiting our experiences and preventing personal growth. In extreme cases, it can lead to anxiety disorders, phobias, or panic attacks.

Managing and Confronting Fears

Dealing with fear involves recognizing and understanding our fears, assessing their reality, and gradually confronting them. Techniques such as exposure therapy, where one is gradually and systematically exposed to the fear source, can be effective in reducing fear responses. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can also help in managing the physiological symptoms of fear.


Disgust is a basic emotion that often arises as a response to something perceived as unpleasant, offensive, or contaminating. It’s an emotion deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, primarily serving as a mechanism to avoid harm, particularly from spoiled food or disease.

The Psychological Function of Disgust

Disgust originally evolved as a guard against physical contaminants or harmful substances. However, this emotion has since expanded to encompass moral and social dimensions. We might feel disgust not only towards certain foods or unhygienic conditions but also in response to actions or behaviors that we find morally reprehensible.

Disgust and Personal Boundaries

Disgust plays a significant role in establishing and maintaining personal boundaries. It often signals when something is crossing our threshold of acceptance, whether physically, socially, or morally. This aspect of disgust can be beneficial in protecting our well-being, but it can also lead to adverse reactions like prejudice or extreme aversion if not properly managed.

Managing Feelings of Disgust

Coping with disgust involves understanding its origins and the triggers that elicit this response. It’s important to distinguish between rational and irrational disgust – the former being an adaptive (healthy) response to actual threats, and the latter potentially leading to harmful behaviors or attitudes. Developing a balanced perspective and challenging irrational feelings of disgust can be effective ways to manage this emotion.


Anger is a strong emotional response often associated with feelings of frustration, irritation, or antagonism. While frequently perceived negatively, anger is a natural and sometimes necessary emotion that can signal when our boundaries have been crossed or our needs are not being met.

Defining Anger and Its Expressions

Anger can range from mild annoyance to intense rage. It might be triggered by external events, such as being treated unfairly, or by internal feelings, like perceived failures or insecurities. Anger can be expressed in various ways, from quiet resentment to vocal outbursts. The expression of anger, and how it’s perceived, can be heavily influenced by cultural and personal norms.

The Importance of Healthy Anger Expression

Expressing anger in a healthy, constructive manner is crucial. Suppressed anger can lead to resentment, passive-aggressive behavior, or even physical health issues, while uncontrolled anger can damage relationships and lead to regrettable actions. Learning to express anger appropriately involves recognizing the emotion, understanding its source, and communicating feelings in a constructive way.

Techniques for Working With Anger

Working with anger effectively often involves a combination of self-awareness and practical strategies.

Techniques might include deep breathing, taking a timeout to cool down, or engaging in physical activity to release tension.

Cognitive strategies, such as challenging irrational thoughts that fuel anger, can also be helpful.

Nowadays we tend not to use the term ‘anger management’ because it suggests that anger should somehow be managed, rather than understood.


These emotions – joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger – are signals that guide us through our interactions, experiences, and decisions. Understanding these emotions is a great way to understanding ourselves and enhancing our wellbeing.

The Significance of Emotional Understanding

Recognizing and respecting our emotions is vital. It allows us to respond to life’s challenges with greater awareness and adaptability. Emotions like joy and sadness provide depth to our experiences, fear keeps us alert to potential dangers, disgust helps us establish boundaries, and anger can be a catalyst for change and assertiveness. Each emotion, in its way, contributes to our complex human experience.

Embracing Emotional Diversity

While we’ve focused on these five basic emotions, hold in mind that our emotional world is vast and varied. Each person experiences emotions differently, influenced by individual backgrounds, cultures, and life experiences. Embracing this diversity is key to understanding the full spectrum of human emotions.

Counselling and Psychotherapy: A Pathway to Emotional Wellbeing

In counselling, the goal is often to help individuals navigate their emotional landscape in a way that promotes mental health and well-being. Whether it’s through understanding and managing emotions, developing coping strategies, or addressing deeper emotional challenges, counselling provides a supportive and confidential space to work through these issues.

For anyone seeking support in understanding and managing their emotions, or dealing with any mental health concerns, remember that help is available. Counselling can offer valuable insights and strategies to enhance your emotional well-being. Feel free to reach out to me and take that important step towards emotional health and personal growth.

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