Understanding your 8 Basic Emotions

We all experience many emotions throughout our lives that, at times, may be confusing and difficult to manage. Understanding the eight basic emotions we are born with can help identify and manage how we feel.

Various psychologists have attempted to identify the different types of emotions that humans experience. One prominent theory is psychologist Robert Plutchik’s “wheel of emotions.”[1] 

The Wheel of Emotions

The wheel of emotions looks a lot like the color wheel.  It consists of eight basic emotions in the middle and a mixture of others spiraling outward.  Plutchik states that primary emotions can be combined to form additional feelings, just as colors can be mixed to create other shades.[1]

This means that the eight basic emotions act like building blocks, with more complex and sometimes mixed emotions stemming from a combination of these. For example, primary emotions such as trust and joy can be combined to create love; or joy and surprise to create delight.

The eight primary emotions in the wheel are joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust. Each of these primary emotions has an opposite emotion. This is based on the physiological reaction that is created by each emotion in animals.[2] The physiological reactions that are linked to emotions are an important part of Plutchik’s research. 


Joy, which is physiologically linked to connection, is the opposite of sadness, which is linked to withdrawal. Fear, which is associated with feeling small, is the opposite of anger, in which we get bigger and louder. Disgust, related to rejection, is the opposite of trust, which is related to embracement. Anticipation, in which we examine something closely, is the opposite of surprise, which is linked to jumping back.


The basis of Plitchik’s research is that our eight primary emotions combine to create additional feelings of increased depth and complexity.[1] For example, joy and anticipation are combined to create optimism, and anger and disgust combined create contempt. 

Why is this Helpful? 

Emotional literacy is a key part of emotional intelligence, which helps us understand and communicate how we feel. When people are overwhelmed with emotion, they find it challenging to identify and share how they are feeling. Understanding our basic emotions, including their opposites and combinations, can help us gain a deeper understanding of how these emotions are expressed and allow us to become aware of their impact on our behavior.

How to use the Feeling Wheel 

Plitchik’s work helps us simplify and comprehend complex concepts, and understanding is a fundamental step toward solving any dilemma or problem. When the issue we seek to solve concerns our emotions –  which we are processing subconsciously – it can be tough to identify and communicate our needs.

Plitchik’s feeling wheel allows us to visualize our emotions, with the aid of color, and ascertain which combinations of emotions have created the outcome we are experiencing.  Once we can depersonalize or objectify the emotions, it is easier to feel compassion and empathy for ourselves so that we can focus our energy and attention on the emotions that we wish to feel. This is possible in particular moments, on a daily basis, and more generally throughout life.

There are two different ways to use the feelings wheel: as a two-dimensional circle or a three-dimensional ellipse. 

The two-dimensional circle allows people to clearly see which primary emotions have been combined to create what they are feeling. This creates an opportunity to communicate this to others and to dive a little more deeply into why the primary emotions surfaced initially. 

Using the three-dimensional form of the feeling wheel allows people to view the emotional intensity of the primary and secondary emotions.

Why use the Feeling Wheel?

The connection between emotional intelligence and mental health is being increasingly recognized. The feeling wheel builds emotional literacy and emotional intelligence through the process of identifying, communicating, and analyzing specific emotions as well as through building language skills.

Scientific literature highlights the major role that emotional intelligence plays in influencing individuals’ happiness [3]. Numerous studies have made the connection between emotional intelligence and psychological traits that are closely associated with happiness. Those with higher levels of emotional intelligence have been found to have higher rates of subjective well-being, life satisfaction [5], and positive emotional states in addition to enjoying better social relations and less chance of loneliness.[4] Overall, there is clear evidence that capacities of emotional intelligence are related to personal well-being – physical and mental – as well as satisfaction and subjective happiness.[3],[4],[5]

Particularly in adolescents, as capacities for comprehension and emotional regulation increase, so does their subjective happiness.[3] This demonstrates the importance of understanding your eight basic emotions. It also highlights the importance of having resources for building emotional intelligence and simplifying the complexity of emotions in schools, youth projects, and other spaces for adolescents to enhance understanding, awareness, and control over their emotions.

If you or a loved one is struggling with anything you have read in this blog, please get in touch with Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] Plutchik, R. (2001). The Nature of Emotions: Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. American Scientist, 89(4), 344–350. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27857503

[2] Plutchik, R. (1980). Emotion – A Psychoevolutionary Synthesis, London: Longman

[3] Guerra-Bustamante, J., León-Del-Barco, B., Yuste-Tosina, R., López-Ramos, V. M., & Mendo-Lázaro, S. (2019). Emotional Intelligence and Psychological Well-Being in Adolescents. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(10), 1720. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16101720

[4] Cejudo J., Rodrigo-Ruiz D., López-Delgado M.L., Losada L. Emotional intelligence and its relationship with levels of social anxiety and stress in adolescents. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 2018;15:1073. doi: 10.3390/ijerph15061073
[5] Palmer B., Donaldson C., Stough C. Emotional intelligence and life satisfaction. Personal. Individ. Differ. 2002;33:1091–1100. doi: 10.1016/S0191-8869(01)00215-X. [CrossRef] [Google Scholar] [Ref list]

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