Emotions Explorer: Theoretical Background

Elena Svetieva, PhD, Research Associate
Center for Creative Leadership

The set of terms presented in Emotions Explorer are based on over four decades of research in evolutionary, clinical and social psychology, which has focused on identifying, categorizing and explaining the variety of human feeling.

Emotions Explorer is based on emotion categorizations that seek to summarize basic emotional experiences. We use the research of Paul Ekman, Carol Izard, James Russell’s work on the circumplex model of emotion, and the positive and negative affect research of Watson & Tellegen. (References below.)

The Emotions Explorer first includes the set of very basic emotions, like happiness and anger, which have been observed by evolutionary psychologists to occur in individuals across different cultures and generations, and are biologically hardwired to help humans navigate the outside world (Ekman, 2007; Izard, 1991). Building on this set, the Emotions Explorer includes a list of basic of both positive and negative emotional states individuals typically can experience in daily life. These terms were identified and validated by leading clinical psychologists to understand the extent to which individuals are positively engaged with their environment or negatively agitated and distressed by it (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1998).

Emotions Explorer also encompasses social psychological research looking at the full spectrum of feeling by including terms from the circumplex model of emotion (Russell, 1980; Plutchik & Conte, 1997). In this model, all emotion can be mapped onto two dimensions: the extent to which it is experienced as pleasant (or unpleasant) and the degree to which involves “activation” (or the energy level of the emotion). The circumplex better reflects emotion states that may not be felt so strongly (such as contentment or boredom) but which are important in the context of well-being and performance. In addition to basic emotion states the Emotions Explorer also includes cognitive states which though not explicitly emotional, capture instances of cognitive engagement.

Emotions Explorer then builds on the basic emotion states by also including terms that reflect the complex and social nature of human feelings. Recent psychological theory emphasizes emotions that have a social or moral component, including how we are treated by others, our sense of belongingness, and our need for a just world (Haidt, 2003; Planalp, 1999). Emotions Explorer therefore includes emotion terms that are based around how included or excluded we feel from our personal and professional environments, as well as a set of emotion terms that capture the human tendency to respond emotionally to moral situations and violations. Finally, Emotions Explorer also reflects recent theory that brings into greater focus positive emotion states like pride and gratitude and the vital role that such positive emotions have in the human potential for growth, change, learning and creativity (Fredrickson, 2003).

Emotions Explorer consists of the following:

Positive emotion states

1 – Excited

2 – Enthused

3 – Happy

4 – Powerful

5 – Proud

6 – Alert

7 – Determined

8 – Inspired

9 – Energetic

10 – Sad

11 – Guilty

12 – Irritated

13 – Angry

14 – Agitated

15 – Scared

16 – Nervous

17 – Restless

18 – Worried

19 – Troubled

20 – Content

21 – Mellow

22 – Pleased

23 – Calm

24 – Relaxed

25 – Peaceful

26 – Bored

27 – Tired

28 – Upset

Positive emotion states

29 – Hopeful

30 – Fascinated

31 – Delighted

32 – Infatuated
33 – Amused

34 – Wonderful

35 – Confident

36 – Free

37 – Grateful

Moral emotions

38 – Persecuted

39 – Betrayed

40 – Cheated

41 – Foolish

43 – Remorse
44 – Pity

44 – Embarrassed

45 – Disgusted

Social emotions

46 – Affectionate
47 – Loved
48 – Kind
49 – Generous
50 – Amiable

51 – Amiable
52 – Liked
53 – Welcome

53 – Appreciated
54 – Honored
55 – Bitter

56 – Jealous
57 – Rejected
58 – Left out

Cognitive states

59 – Confused
60 – Distracted
61 – Intrigued

62 – Suspicious
63 – Odd


Ekman, P. (2007). Emotions revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. Macmillan.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology is coming to understand why it’s good to feel good. American scientist, 91(4), 330-335.

Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. Handbook of Affective Sciences, 11, 852-870.

Izard, C. E. (1991). The psychology of emotions. Springer Science & Business Media

Planalp, S. (1999). Communicating emotion: Social, moral, and cultural processes. Cambridge University Press.

Plutchik, R. E., & Conte, H. R. (1997). Circumplex models of personality and emotions. American Psychological Association.

Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: the PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(6), 1063-1070.

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