Start here - with a simple emotion map

Updated: Feb 9, 2019

Tell me about the last time you felt awumbuk*...I mean really felt it deep down in your soul.

And how do stop yourself from acting on those heart-stopping surges of basorexia*? Seriously, how do you do it?

I’m assuming you’ve never heard of these emotions called awumbuk and basorexia - but does that mean you’ve never felt them? Or maybe you have felt them but never noticed the feelings because you have no language to reflect on them?

If this all sounds interesting but pretty much academic, it shouldn’t, because you’ve already spent at least two years without any emotional vocabulary at all. It wasn’t until the second year of your life that two parts of your brain – the dorsolateral cortex and anterior cingulate – started to mature, and these are the drivers of verbal fluency.

Only at this point did you begin to use words as symbols to represent your feelings. And this is huge. Gradually you were able to direct your attention towards how you were feeling. You could think about your emotions rather than simply experiencing them.

Fast-forward to adolescence and on into adulthood, and there is now very good evidence that people who can put their own feelings into words with a high degree of complexity are happier and healthier than those who can’t. For example, they’re less likely to binge drink and self-harm, they're are better at coping with being dumped by a partner ...and they’re much better at calming down during a heated, emotional Twitter exchange.

So, why are some people better at this than others? Mostly because, to get really good at naming your emotions, you needed a parent who was attuned to your emotional state while you were a baby and a toddler. Someone who could see when you were sad and could tell you what sadness is, why it happens, what to expect from it, how to deal with it.

But parents - get ready for this - parents are human. And, as such, they are flawed like everybody. So the degree to which they are able to be attentive is going to vary a lot.


The good news is that it's never too late to learn about emotions - yours and other peoples'. It's never too late to build up your emotional vocabulary and awareness. And we're going to start right here, right now.

Right, where's the map?

You can map out all your emotions on two dimensions: Arousal (we're going to call that 'Energy') and Valence (we're going to call that 'Pleasantness'). And here's what your emotional landscape starts to look like:

This is actually known as a circumplex. 'Intense' refers to high energy and 'Mild' to low energy

The Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence uses this colourful grid format in schools to map out emotions on the same two dimensions. It makes it easier for children to think about how they might be feeling: furiously Red or anxiously Orange? Ecstatically Yellow, or serenely Green? Hopelessly Dark Blue, or just sullenly Light Blue? Something about the map and the colours makes it all a little easier to think about and articulate. There's even an app.

So, how many emotions are there?

Once you have the layout of the map, you need to start plotting some actual emotions. But where to start? I mean, the search for a list of universal human emotions has been going on more-or-less since the beginning of human civilisation. For example, the ancient Chinese Book of Rites describes seven Qing – that’s roughly translated as ‘feelings’ – which humans are born with. These seven feelings are: joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, disliking, and liking.

Many centuries later, Darwin looked for universal expressions of emotion, which he distilled down to: anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness. This is strikingly similar to the group of emotions which Disney Pixar came up with when they produced the film Inside Out. There were five emotion characters inside the head of the main character Riley, the only one left out from Darwin’s list was ‘surprise’. And that’s no …surprise, because there is still no consensus amongst emotion researchers as to whether ‘surprise’ really is a universal emotion, or whether it’s too close to fear in some cultures to be distinguishable.

Compound Emotions

But then, once you get to grips with some universal basic emotions, you have to start considering how they can be combined to form compound emotions. Some of the interesting work here has come from Artificial Intelligence software designed to identify emotions in facial expressions.

Shichuan Du and Aleix Martinez, from The Ohio State University, have identified 17 compound emotions, which they argue are consistent across cultures. They go on to argue that often, when you build up a compound emotion, it can be given a single name. For example, combining ‘disgusted’ and ‘angry’ gives you ‘appalled’. They use six component emotions (the same ones identified by Darwin – happiness, surprise, anger, sadness, disgust, and fear) which are like the building blocks used to make the 17 universal compound emotions.

Here are 15 of the 17 compound facial expressions. The two other not show here are ‘Happily Fearful’ and ‘Happily Sad’ (Du and Martinez, 2015)

How do I get better at naming my emotions?

In a word: read.

There is some evidence that the type of books you read is important: literary fiction – but not popular fiction – is associated with being able to read other people’s emotions more effectively. But any fiction, or song-lyric, or movie dialogue, is going to help. Marcel Proust, a writer from the early 20th century, described books as a kind of ‘optical instrument’ – something designed by the author explicitly to help the reader ‘see’ experiences that they’d already had but failed to pay attention to. In other words, the whole point of stories is to share experiences of emotion, to put them into words in a way that helps you see them more clearly in yourself and in others – to become more emotionally intelligent.

A second suggestion would be to write some kind of emotion diary. Not necessarily every day, just now-and-then. Think back to meaningful experiences you have had, either from your life, from a book or from a film. Reflect on the emotions you experienced and put them into words – any combination of words you like, to reflect any combination of emotions you felt.

The diary will give you the time and space to practice breaking your emotions down into fine-grained beautiful landscapes of granular experience. Before you know it, you will be an advanced emotional granularist and your emotional prowess will cause all kinds of feelings in other people – emotions like envy, surprise and even awe. At least it would, if only they had the emotional intelligence to notice them.

*awumbuk: a feeling of emptiness after guests have left your home

*basorexia: the sudden urge to kiss someone

More examples can be found at the The positive lexicography

Selected References:

  • Compound facial expressions of emotion: from basic research to clinical applications. Du, Shichuan and Martinez, Aleix. 4, s.l. : Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 2015, Vol. 17.

  • Feldman Barrett, Lisa and Bliss-Moreau, Eliza. Affect as a Psychological. [book auth.] Mark Zanna. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 41. s.l. : Elsevier, 2009.

  • Gerhardt, Sue. Why Love Matters. s.l. : Routledge, 2004.