Psychologist logo
Happy faces

How many different positive emotions do we experience?

A new study aims to explore what distinct feelings, thoughts and motivations characterise our positive emotions.

15 December 2020

By Emma Young

Awe, compassion, love, gratitude… research papers and media stories about these emotions abound. Indeed, the past decade has seen an explosion in work on positive emotions — essentially, emotions that involve pleasant rather than unpleasant feelings.

However, very little has been done to explore which distinct feelings, thoughts and motivations characterise each one, argue Aaron Weidman and Jessica Tracy at the University of British Columbia.

In a new paper in Emotion, they report their detailed investigation into these subjective experiences — an investigation that has led them to drop some commonly accepted positive emotions from their master list.

Weidman and Tracy began with 18 positive emotions, all of which had been studied in recent papers. These were: admiration, amusement, attachment love, awe, compassion, contentment, empathy, enthusiasm, gratitude, happiness, hope, interest, love, nurturant love, romantic love, schadenfreude, sympathy and tenderness. (Pride has been studied down to the level of its subjective elements in work previously led by Tracy, so wasn't included in the new research.)

The pair sorted these emotions into five thematic groups: "other-appreciation" (e.g. gratitude), caring (e.g. empathy, compassion), enjoyment (e.g. happiness, contentment) and loving. A total of 150 undergraduate students were each presented with one of the five groups and asked to report up to 10 subjective "elements" of each emotion in that group. For example, participants wrote "I felt concern for someone" as a subjective element of sympathy, and listed "I was on top the world" as an element of enthusiasm.

By identifying elements that seemed to best capture unique aspects of each emotion, the pair whittled more than 1,000 frequently experienced subjective elements to a list of 475, covering the five thematic groups. A fresh batch of participants were then asked to reflect on how they had felt during a given emotion, and to identify elements that best matched those feelings from the relevant group list. Using their responses, Weidman and Tracy homed in on yet smaller lists of elements that best matched each individual emotion.

However, it was not possible to create a distinct set of elements for every emotion. In one striking example, no unique element stood out to separate "compassion" from "empathy" and "tenderness" — and so compassion was dropped from their list of positive emotions.

Neither could the pair clearly differentiate between the subjective elements of "happiness" and "contentment", which went into the next round as "happiness/contentment". "Love" also failed to make the cut, because it was not distinguishable from its sub-types, which had their own unique elements — in fact, Weidman and Tracy found clear support for a sub-type of "attachment love" (involving a close, secure bond with someone), as well as "nurturant love" (more to do with being dedicated to helping someone else to grow) and "romantic love".

To shrink the element lists to a number practical for use in a scale — and also in a bid to check for agreement between people from different backgrounds — the pair then recruited a fresh batch of more than 1,000 participants. This group comprised men and women who identified as White or East Asian, and who were born either in the US or Canada or in another country. As in the second study, they were asked to rate how relevant various elements were to each emotion.

The researchers found that the six participant groups tended to agree about their subjective experiences of the now 15 emotions. They then used a statistical technique to prune their responses into the final product: 5- to 8-item self-report scales for each of these positive emotions.

The pair argue that their work has various implications. Firstly, though they did find some overlap between elements associated with the different emotions (which will need investigating further), the work supports the relatively modern idea that we experience a range of discrete positive emotions. Also, the research supports the argument that love is not a unitary construct.

Some of their other conclusions will be more controversial, however. For example "happiness" and "contentment" are often conceptualised as distinct emotions, but this is not what they concluded. Neither did they find support for the idea that "joy" and "elation" are independent, discrete emotions — items that reflected both these concepts fell readily under the "happiness/contentment" heading. The loss of "compassion" from the list of positive emotions will be contentious, too.

The new scales clearly need more testing — and it's important to note that all the participants, no matter where they were born, were living in the US or Canada, which limits generalisability. However, one of the problems with existing work on positive emotions is that different teams often use different measures, making it hard to compare results. If these scales can be accepted, they will help to make work in the field more standardised.

The pair certainly acknowledge that there's much still to be done, however: "We hope that this work marks a first step in the development of a taxonomy of subjectively experienced positive emotions," they write — "a model of exactly how many positive emotions are experienced as subjectively distinct, as well as the distinguishing set of subjective elements, causal antecedents, and functional consequences that characterize each of these states." 

Further reading

– Picking up good vibrations: Uncovering the content of distinct positive emotion subjective experience.

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest