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Ekman’s 6 Basic Emotions and How They Affect Our Behavior

Our emotions influence how we think, behave, act, and interact with others. This is why it is crucial to understand our basic emotions as it can help us gain better control over ourselves and live a more mindful life.

What are basic emotions

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Humans experience a wide range of emotions that affect our decisions, perceptions and actions. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “basic emotions are often held to be the primitive building blocks of other, nonbasic emotions.” Several psychologists have attempted to identify the various forms of human emotions. And as a result multiple theories have been proposed to explain exactly what we feel. 

Psychiatrist and award-winning author Neel Burton, M.D explainsThe concept of ‘basic’ or ‘primary’ emotions dates back at least to the Book of Rites, a first-century Chinese encyclopedia that identifies seven ‘feelings of men’: joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, disliking, and liking.” Burton adds that “in the 20th century, Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions” which is widely accepted as the most common theory.

Read also: Wheel of Emotions – The Perfect Tool To Better Understand Your Emotions

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The primary human emotions pointed out by Ekman are:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Surprise

However, the list was later modified to consider shame, pride, excitement and embarrassment as primary emotions. But it should be noted that a recent research by Glasgow University has found that four basic emotions instead of six. Another 2017 study by Alan S. Cowen and Dacher Keltner revealed that there are as many as 27 distinct categories of emotion along continuous gradients. This study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although there are many other theories about how emotions influence the human experience, it is believed by most experts that Paul Ekman’s theory of six basic emotions is one of the best.

Understanding 6 basic emotions

Ekmans Basic Emotions Affect Our Behavior Infographic

Here we are going to take a deeper look at the basic human emotions as identified by psychologist Paul Eckman and how they influence our behavior:

1. Happiness

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All of us strive for happiness. It is a “pleasant emotional state that is characterized by feelings of contentment, joy, gratification, satisfaction, and well-being,writes author & educational consultant Kendra Cherry, MS. Happiness is a reward for thoughts, actions and behavior which benefits us.

Happiness is generally expressed in the following ways:

  • Smiling, laughing and other similar subtle facial expressions 
  • Having a relaxed stance, clasping hands together, clenching fists 
  • Speaking in a pleasant manner and having an upbeat tone of voice

Read also: Why Leaning Into Your Uncomfortable Emotions Actually Makes You Happier

How it affects us:

Although happiness is considered as perhaps the most important primary emotion, what we believe will make us happy is often influenced by our friends, family, peers and even pop culture. However, what actually makes us happy is more individualized and complex. Research shows that happiness can cause several health benefits. It can help to reduce stress, improve the immune system and reduce the risks of heart diseases. In fact, being happy can also increase our life expectancy, according to studies.

Kendra adds “Happiness has been linked to a variety of outcomes including increased longevity and increased marital satisfaction. Conversely, unhappiness has been linked to a variety of poor health outcomes.” Being unhappy can often lead to higher levels of loneliness, stress, anxiety, depression and reduced life expectancy.

2. Sadness

Despite how much we want to, we can never escape from sadness. Certain life experiences tend to make us feel sad and upset. In fact, it is one of the most damaging basic emotions as severe and prolonged sadness can lead to depression and suicidal tendencies. Kendra Cherry defines sadness as “a transient emotional state characterized by feelings of disappointment, grief, hopelessness, disinterest, and dampened mood.

Sadness is often characterized by the following:

  • Crying and tears
  • Frown
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling lethargic
  • Withdrawing from social interactions
  • Loss of interest
  • Quietness
  • Being upset & dampened mood

Read also: The 7 Physical Signs of Extreme Sadness

How it affects us:

The type and severity of sadness can vary depending upon the root cause, and how people cope with such feelings can also differ,” adds Kendra. Extreme and prolonged sadness can make us look for certain coping mechanisms like self-medicating, avoiding others, thinking about negative experience and substance abuse. However, such behaviors can be psychologically, emotionally and physically damaging and lead to stronger feelings of sadness.

A 2008 study found that sadness is an integral part and a core symptom of depression. Another 2017 study revealed that depression can significantly augment mortality risk. The researchers state “The association between depression and mortality persists over long periods of time.”

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Theo Harrison
Hey there! I am just someone trying to find my way through life. I am a reader, writer, traveler, fighter, philosopher, artist and all around nice guy. I am outdoor person but heavily into technology, science, psychology, spiritualism, Buddhism, martial arts and horror films. I believe in positive action more than positive thinking.
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