What Is the Emotion Wheel, And How Can It Improve Your Life?

3 min
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Emotions are an important part of life. Sometimes they can be difficult to experience, let alone understand, but the capacity to feel the full spectrum of emotions – from anger to joy and everything in between – is a huge part of what makes us human. It’s also an important instinct for our survival: when we’re babies, expressing emotion is our only method of communication when something isn’t right. As infants, we scream with rage or cry with grief when our needs aren’t being met. As adults, the same notion is true一except the conditioning that comes with language and cognition can leave us quite disconnected from our feelings, and unable to recognize what our emotional responses are trying to tell us. Thankfully, there are some methods we can use to try and figure it all out, such as Plutchik’s Emotion Wheel. Named after Robert Plutchik, the psychologist who came up with the concept, it’s a tool for improving emotional literacy, so that we can learn to become more in tune with our feelings.

Developing Emotional Resilience For Greater Success

This may come as a surprise to some, but studies have found that emotional intelligence is a greater contributor to success in life than cognitive intelligence, or IQ. This is because the more in tune we are with our emotional landscape, the more resilience we have when strong feelings take hold. One reason for this is that talking about our feelings helps us manage them, in what’s called affect labeling. Having the language to identify and name different emotional responses gives us the means to do this. 

Another reason is that the more accepting we are of our emotions, the less shame and fear we experience linked to them – and the more trust we’ll have that they will pass. Emotional literacy gets us comfortable with the idea of making our way through the more uncomfortable emotions (and then, hopefully, processing them more easily), and this awareness helps us have more understanding and compassion for ourselves in what we feel. 

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Photo by Vasran on Shutterstock

Understanding The Wheel of Emotion

Robert Plutchik identified eight core emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. The emotion wheel – also known as the feelings wheel – is designed in a way for us to see how similar or related emotions group together, as well as their spectrum of intensity. For example, grief appears on the sadness spectrum, but it sits at the center of the wheel in dark indigo, flanked by sadness in a lighter purple and then the least intense of the sadness spectrum, pensiveness. Directly opposite sits the converse scale of ecstasy (dark yellow), joy, and then serenity (pale yellow). The wheel also depicts emotions that stem from a mixture of others, so anticipation and joy combine within the optimism zone.

How Do We Use The Emotion Wheel?

The magic of the emotion wheel lies in helping us identify the primary emotions we are feeling. Once we find that core emotion, we can move through the different spokes and related colors of the wheel to help us figure out what nuance of the emotion we’re feeling一and perhaps identify any other related emotions we may also be experiencing without being initially aware of it. The more intense emotions are found at the center, while the lower-intensity feelings are found as you move outwards. Depending on which model of the wheel you use – there are various different interpretations of it, including two-dimensional and three-dimensional models – you may also find mixed emotions (blends) in between the spokes. There is no right or wrong way to use the wheel, however: ultimately, it’s there to help you identify what it is you’re really feeling, before you can delve into the subtleties that give you a deeper understanding of yourself through your emotions.

Using The Wheel with Friends and Family

Emotional intelligence isn’t just about our own feelings. Having compassion for the emotions of the people we love or spend time with, such as co-workers or acquaintances, helps us take things less personally, and prevents us from contributing to their suffering. Holding space for someone else’s emotions – whether it’s an overwhelmed toddler or a grieving friend – is one of the most powerful things we can do for them. We do this by not taking on board their pain, and by not transforming it into our own somehow, but instead, witnessing and acknowledging it, and supporting them by letting them know they are safe to feel it. Familiarity with Plutchik’s emotion wheel can help you start to recognize different emotions in others, and in turn, offer them the vocabulary to talk meaningfully about their feelings. This is particularly helpful in romantic partnerships, where lines of communication need to be as clear and honest as possible. It can also strengthen relationships with parents, siblings, friends, and co-workers, as well as help you support your children in their emotional growth.

Robert Plutchik actually identified thousands of emotions, but the idea of his wheel is to simplify what can otherwise be overwhelming and difficult to understand. Other wheels do have many more emotions, as there’s not really a limit to the nuances of what we feel一and the more broad our vocabulary, the stronger our emotional intelligence can get. However, Plutchik’s wheel is an extremely useful starting point. Once we can learn to map out our feels, there’s no need to be afraid to catch them.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: A Psychoevolutionary Theory Of Emotions; The Science Of Emotional Intelligence; Measuring Emotions And Their Derivatives.

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