A handy guide to navigating emotions

For many people the world of emotions is a terrifying place. The combination of unpredictability and intensity can make even the most emotionally-literate person feel helpless. If feeling your own and witnessing others’ emotions leaves you confused, then help is at hand.

In a similar way to primary colours, primary (or basic) emotions form the foundation for all other emotional states. The number of primary emotions varies from five to ten; however theorists do agree that anger, fear, happiness, sadness and disgust all make the list. Having these as primary emotions makes a certain kind of sense – along with surprise, the facial expressions associated with anger, fear, happiness, sadness and disgust can be recognised cross-culturally in ways that more complex emotions can’t.

In 2015, Disney thrust emotions into the spotlight with Inside Out, an animated film which personifies the five primary emotions and profiles their effect on behaviour, decision-making and mood. In amongst the story, the film identifies the each emotion’s unique purpose:

  • Anger helps to reinforce our values by identifying problems like injustice or interference with self-determination;
  • Fear tells us how safe/unsafe we feel, as well as identifying potential dangers;
  • Joy (which makes for a better character name than Happiness) provides an opportunity to experience the world with wonder;
  • Sadness helps us to process loss; and
  • Disgust helps us to develop our individuality.

Now, we don’t have five separate characters fighting for control over our consciousness, however Disney’s interpretation wasn’t too far off the mark; humans do experience emotions on many levels – including cognitions and mood – and it is possible to experience more than one emotion at a time.

However, while personifying each emotion makes for an entertaining film, it doesn’t really help us to define what an emotion is in real terms. Perhaps deconstructing the three main components of emotion is a good place to start:

  1. Physiological – changes in the autonomic nervous system activities such as respiration and heart-rate;
  2. Expressive – facial features, exclamations, crying and laughing; and
  3. Experiential – how we subjectively experience being activated by each emotion.

From this, we can see that an emotion is best characterised as a state of being which manifests itself through subjective experiences, physiological changes and expressive behaviours.

To my mind however, this definition doesn’t quite do justice to the various layers associated with each emotion. Fortunately, American psychologist Dr Paul Ekman has developed an interactive atlas of emotions – after all, every navigator requires a map of some kind.

The atlas first imagines each of the five primary emotions as a continent. Each continent consists of several different states. For example, anger can present itself as mild annoyance, intense fury or something in-between. Next, the atlas looks at specific triggers and actions that bookend an emotional response. And finally, the atlas identifies a related mood – described as a “longer-lasting cousin of the emotion that causes the related emotion to be felt more frequently and intensely”.

Finally, when it comes to navigating emotions, we can’t go past the humble emoji. These little guys make it easier to identify how we are feeling at any given time, and consequently help us to develop our emotional literacy.

While the experience of feeling and expressing an emotion might seem irrational, it’s important to understand the very rational messages that sit behind our emotions. And the better we are at understanding this, the more compassionate we are when others are activated by their own emotional responses.


  • Compton, W.C. and Hoffman, E. (2012). Positive Psychology: The science of happiness and flourishing. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishers,.
  • Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2012). Psychology: Australian and New Zealand edition (3rd ed.). Milton, Queensland: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. VitalBook file.
  • http://www.paulekman.com/
  • Facebook emojis

Photo credit: Inside Out, 2015

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