What Are Emotions

Verified by World Mental Healthcare Association

Emotions refer to complex psychological states that occur as a reaction to certain internal and environmental stimuli, such as memories, feelings, thoughts, or events. The way people respond to their emotions can impact their physical and psychological well-being, either positively or negatively.

What Are Emotions?

Emotions are individual states of mind that involve intense feelings acquired from a person’s circumstances, mindset or relationships with others. It also refers to a conscious experience that includes expressive movements of the body, facial expressions, behaviors, bodily reactions, and verbal expressions as well. Though it consists of several different elements, feelings are considered the most significant part. This mental state is often defined by what it does rather than how it is constituted in the brain.

According to researchers 1, emotions are “a functional state of the human brain that casually explains certain complex human behaviors.” It is how we deal with situations we find personally significant. Emotional experiences contribute to the development of feelings that are influenced by beliefs, memories, and other factors. In this functional state, people process somatic and environmental information differently. Except for some basic emotions, there are several other types of emotions and how they are experienced can differ from person to person. A 2013 study 2 stated that it is a state of mind that a person develops when responding to different stimuli present in their environment.

Understanding Human Emotions

The types of our emotions we experience in different situations rule our daily lives and even have a significant impact on our regular decisions. Our actions and the activities we choose are mostly motivated by our emotional states. Understanding the types and nature of emotions and how they can affect our well-being can help us handle our life with more stability.

Human emotions are various complex reactions that include both physical and psychological manifestations. “Emotion derives from evolution and neurobiological development,” a 2010 research paper 3 suggested. The study explains that it plays a pivotal role in the evolution of consciousness and triggers higher levels of awareness.

Basic human emotions help influence our rapid actions critical for adaptive reactions to immediate threats to survival. A group of brain structures, known as the limbic system, controls emotions and the structures release certain chemicals that stimulate people’s emotional states, according to a 2007 study 4. The type of emotion a person feels in a specific situation largely depends on which chemical has been released from the limbic system. It not only reflects the emotional states, but also the functioning of the human body. Similarly, our bodily states are also closely associated with our emotional states.

Why Do Humans Have Emotions?

Throughout history, researchers have been studying whether emotions involve any beneficial impact on humans. In certain instances, strong emotional states influence individuals to make certain decisions that they may regret later. Similarly, many philosophers believe that emotional states help us recognize our mental resources so that we can prepare ourselves for any threats or challenges present in our surrounding environment. History suggests that human emotional states often lead to survival strategies and every emotion has its own significant purpose.

Research 5 says that it helps us fight or flee when we encounter threats or find an obstacle in the path of our goals. For example, when we witness a threat, our sense of fear prompts us to either run away or face the challenges instead of giving up. When we finally defeat the threat, a feeling of joy strengthens the behavior that helps in our survival. However, a 2017 study 6 stated that there are also various emotional states that cause distress more than provide benefits. For example, chronic fear can deteriorate the health of a person with anxiety. Meanwhile, depression comes with extreme sadness that makes people lose their ability to feel joy.

Key Elements Of Emotions

Key Elements of Emotions

Though researchers often argue about the sequence, they mostly agree that an emotional state consists of three distinct elements, including subjective experience, physiological response, and behavioral response.

The following are some brief descriptions of these three key elements:

1. Subjective Experience

According to a 2018 research 7, emotional experiences are highly subjective. The study also mentions that people mostly express all basic emotions regardless of their cultures and upbringing. Such subjective emotional experiences can range from mild to extremely severe. It doesn’t depend on how intense the experience is as all experiences can trigger various types of emotions in an individual and each emotion can be felt differently.

2. Physiological Response

Researchers 8 believe that whenever a person feels any emotion, they experience physiological reactions simultaneously. These reactions are the outcome of the autonomic nervous system’s response to the specific emotional state the person is experiencing. This autonomic nervous system 9 regulates involuntary bodily responses and controls the fight-and-flight response. These physiological responses have helped humans survive throughout history.

3. Behavioral Response

It refers to the actual expression of emotions. It is the final element that includes a smile, laugh, anger, distress, sigh, pain, or any other emotions. A 2017 study 10 suggests that individual personalities and sociocultural norms play a pivotal role in people’s behavioral responses. It also helps people to express in front of others how they are feeling.

Types Of Emotions

Types of Emotions

According to psychologist Paul Ekman 11, there are six basic emotions that people experience in their day-to-day life. The basic emotions are also associated with facial expressions and mostly occur automatically. The six basic emotions include:

1. Happiness

While experiencing this emotional state, people often feel calm, happy, joy, peace, and contentment. It is the one state that people endeavor for the most. It is the most pleasant state of mind that comes with satisfaction, gratification, and wellness. One can experience happiness when feeling:

  • Safe and secure
  • Connected with loved ones
  • Engaged in a positive activity
  • Peaceful or relaxed

This emotional state can be expressed through a variety of facial expressions & body language, and even verbally. A person can be considered happy when he/she is smiling, appearing in a relaxed state, or speaking in a pleasant way. Studies 12 showed that happiness can be highly influenced by different cultural norms.

2. Anger

It refers to a powerful emotional state that mostly occurs when a person becomes victimized or experiences injustice. A person can feel frustration, agitation, and hostility when experiencing anger. This particular emotional state is associated with a broad range of physical and psychological negative outcomes. Regardless of the negative impact, anger can play a major role in the fight-and-flight response, a 2017 study 13 suggested. One can experience anger when feeling:

  • Trapped, annoyed, or frustrated
  • Irritated by someone’s action or behavior
  • Cheated and insulted

Anger can be recognized by frowning, having a strong stance, screaming, sweating, crying, hitting, kicking, or throwing objects. While most people consider anger as a negative emotional state, it has a few positive effects as well. It helps people express their feelings and disappointments, as well as inspires them to take necessary action when needed.

Read More About Anger Here

3. Sadness

It refers to a transient emotional state and one can be considered sad when he/she is experiencing grief, disappointment, sorrow, hopelessness or low mood. This emotional state can be an outcome of a specific event, such as a rejection, loss, or betrayal. People experience sadness differently based on the cause of their sadness. When it becomes a long-term feeling, it can lead to severe mental health problems like depression 14. One can experience sadness when feeling:

  • Lonely or heartbroken
  • Grieved, unhappy, or troubled
  • Miserable or gloomy
  • Crying frequently or experiencing withdrawal from people

Read More About Loneliness Here

4. Fear

It is considered another powerful emotional state that occurs when a person senses a threat. The severity of fear can range from mild to severe depending on the type of threat. It can be characterized by widening of eyes, attempts to hide or flee from the situation, unusual breathing, and palpitation. One can experience fear when feeling:

  • Worried and doubtful
  • Anxious, nervous, terrified, or panicked
  • Horrified, stressed, confused

Research 15 says that this emotional state also contributes to the fight-and-flight response as it prepares one to effectively deal with the threat.

5. Disgust

It refers to a natural reaction towards something one dislikes. It can be characterized by withdrawal from a specific person or thing, curling the lips, wrinkling the nose, or physical reactions like retching or vomiting. It mostly occurs in an unwanted or unpleasant situation. It often acts as a positive emotional state 16 as it helps people to protect themselves from things they want to avoid. One may feel disgusted even by minor things, including a taste, smell, or sight. One can feel disgusted when feeling:

  • Uncomfortable or nauseated
  • Disturbed or offended by something
  • Disliking or disapproving of something

6. Surprise

A 2013 research paper 17 defined surprise as a fundamental link between cognition and emotion. It occurs when something unexpected (either positive or negative) happens. It is the one emotional state that can trigger most of the physical responses. Surprise can be characterized by:

  • Widening of eyes, raising eyebrows or having an open mouth
  • Physical response like jumping
  • Screaming, feeling shocked, or grasping

It is another state of mind that can trigger a fight-and-flight response as it prepares the body to either fight or flee from the threat. It can even have significant effects on human behaviors.

There are a few other emotions, explained by Ekman, such as:

  • Grief
  • Contempt
  • Amusement
  • Guilt
  • Pride
  • Relief
  • Excitement
  • Shame
  • Satisfaction
  • Embarrassment

Read More About Embarrassment Here


There are numerous emotions, along with the six basic ones, that a person can feel and each emotional state has its own impact on our lives. It not only influences with whom a person connects but also affects his/her everyday decisions. By understanding different human emotions and feelings that people experience based on their circumstances, one can gain a proper idea of how each emotion is expressed and what effect they have on their lives.

Emotions At A Glance

  1. Emotions are strong feelings that arise from an individual’s circumstances, state of mind, or relationships with others. 
  2. It involves expressive movements, facial expressions, behaviors, bodily reactions, and verbal expressions.
  3. Emotions prepare us for any threats or challenges present in our surrounding environment. 
  4. It consists of three significant elements, such as subjective experiences, physiological responses, and behavioral responses. 
  5. There are six different types of basic emotions, including happiness, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and fear. 
👇 References:
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  2. LeDoux J. E. (2012). Evolution of human emotion: a view through fear. Progress in brain research, 195, 431–442. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-444-53860-4.00021-0 []
  3. Izard C. E. (2009). Emotion theory and research: highlights, unanswered questions, and emerging issues. Annual review of psychology, 60, 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163539 []
  4. Rajmohan, V., & Mohandas, E. (2007). The limbic system. Indian journal of psychiatry, 49(2), 132–139. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.33264 []
  5. Fredrickson B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. The American psychologist, 56(3), 218–226. https://doi.org/10.1037//0003-066x.56.3.218 []
  6. An, S., Ji, L. J., Marks, M., & Zhang, Z. (2017). Two Sides of Emotion: Exploring Positivity and Negativity in Six Basic Emotions across Cultures. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 610. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00610 []
  7. Nummenmaa, L., Hari, R., Hietanen, J. K., & Glerean, E. (2018). Maps of subjective feelings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(37), 9198–9203. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807390115 []
  8. Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. Physiological Changes Associated with Emotion. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10829/ []
  9. LeBouef T, Yaker Z, Whited L. Physiology, Autonomic Nervous System. [Updated 2021 May 9]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538516/ []
  10. Aan Het Rot M, Enea V, Dafinoiu I, Iancu S, Taftă SA, Bărbuşelu M. Behavioural responses to facial and postural expressions of emotion: An interpersonal circumplex approach. Br J Psychol. 2017 Nov;108(4):797-811. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12247. Epub 2017 Mar 21. PMID: 28326547. []
  11. Wolf K. (2015). Measuring facial expression of emotion. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 17(4), 457–462. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.4/kwolf []
  12. Ye, D., Ng, Y. K., & Lian, Y. (2015). Culture and Happiness. Social indicators research, 123(2), 519–547. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-014-0747-y []
  13. Williams R. (2017). Anger as a Basic Emotion and Its Role in Personality Building and Pathological Growth: The Neuroscientific, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1950. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01950 []
  14. Mouchet-Mages, S., & Baylé, F. J. (2008). Sadness as an integral part of depression. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 10(3), 321–327. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2008.10.3/smmages []
  15. Adolphs R. (2013). The biology of fear. Current biology : CB, 23(2), R79–R93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.055 []
  16. Curtis V. (2011). Why disgust matters. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 366(1583), 3478–3490. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2011.0165 []
  17. Mellers B, Fincher K, Drummond C, Bigony M. Surprise: a belief or an emotion? Prog Brain Res. 2013;202:3-19. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-62604-2.00001-0. PMID: 23317823. []
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