Page 2 of 3

It Took Me by Surprise

Merriam-Webster defines Surprise as,

: an unexpected event, piece of information, etc.

: an unexpected gift, party, etc.

: the feeling caused by something that is unexpected or unusual

Surprise, the emotion defined by its brevity, arises when something predicted does not happen as expected, or when something unexpected occurs. Surprise is neutral, just a recognition of the unexpected. But as we process the unexpected and understand the implications, the emotion of Surprise rapidly gives way to other emotions – Happiness if the event was gladly received, Fear if there is danger accompanying the event, or Anger if the event is upsetting.

Surprise brings us new information, as our mental model of the world is challenged and reality differs from the expected turn of events, or when completely unexpected events occur. Being forced to reassess our expectations leads to new learning as we are faced with our ignorance. We pay attention with our mind empty of other thoughts. Then, as we process the implications, other strong emotions – like [Happiness]((, Fear and Anger – flood our mind with feeling. This is why we remember a Surprise years after the event, and why advertisers use Surprise to aid advertising recall.

A Dramatic Surprise on a Quiet Square

Surprise is accompanied by distinctive facial expressions. When we are surprised, we open our eyes wide enough to show the whites, raise our eyebrows so high that they are curved, and open our mouth with our jaw dropped, lips and teeth parted. These distinctive expressions help us take in the maximum information and alert others that we are experiencing something unexpected.

Surprise is different from startle. Startle is a brief, reflex action that we feel even if we expect the event, e.g., the starting gun in a race, whereas a Surprise, by definition, is an unexpected event. Finally, when we are surprised, our eyes are open, but when we are startled, our eyes are tightly closed.

In the Caricature series of sketches, the artist shows someone turning the handle on a Jack-in-the-Box. We don’t know when and what will pop out of the box, and are surprised when it happens. The unpredictability and randomness of the top opening can be endlessly amusing for a child.


The emotion Surprise in the Caricature series of sketches.

The artist for Watercolors prepared a sketch showing a human hand opening the ribbon tied on a gift box. When we open the ribbon and take off the lid, we don’t know what to expect inside the box. When we see what is inside the gift box we first feel Surprise, and then, as we interpret the meaning of the object, another emotion like Happiness, Fear, Anger or Disgust, etc.


The emotion Surprise in the Watercolor series of sketches.

Imagine my Disgust

Merriam-Webster defines Disgust as,

: a strong feeling of dislike for something that has a very unpleasant appearance, taste, smell, etc.

: annoyance and anger that you feel toward something because it is not good, fair, appropriate, etc.

Disgust is a universal emotion of aversion or disapproval. Disgust is strongly linked to our senses of taste and smell. We feel Disgust when we experience something that is revolting, repulsive, offensive or unpleasant. We also feel Disgust when someone violates rules or values. In these cases, Disgust is associated with our vision of purity being violated and not with what is harmful/dangerous or just/unjust. This is what distinguishes Disgust from Fear or Anger.

Disgust helps warn us that something may cause us harm. There are some universal objects that evoke Disgust in humans – bodily secretions, body parts, decaying food, certain living creatures, visible signs of infection or illness.

Trust and Disgust are opposite emotions. Trust creates cooperation and bonding, while Disgust expresses revulsion and disapproval. Trust is fostered by physical contact, Disgust is expressed by withdrawal and reluctance. These emotions also have strong physiological components. Trust increases heart rate, while heart rate slows down when we feel Disgust.

Disgust is characterized by specific facial expressions. When we feel Disgust we draw up and wrinkle our noses, open our mouths and pull down the corners of our lips, jerk our heads backwards, narrow or partially close our eyes, and make sounds of “ugh” or “eew”.

In the Caricatures series of sketches, the artist displays the facial expression of disgust. We see the drawn and wrinkled nose, the upturned lips with the corners down, creasing of the forehead, the narrowed eyes and raised eyebrows. Whatever the person is seeing evokes and clearly communicates Disgust to observers.


The emotion Disgust in the Watercolor series of sketches.

The artist for the Watercolor series of sketches choose to represent the “revulsion” aspect of Disgust. We see someone with a bowl of soup, and as they bring up the soup spoon to their mouth, we see the fly in the spoon. A list of questions immediately rises in our mind – Did I eat the soup before I saw the fly in the soup? How could I have missed the fly? We want to fling the spoon and the soup away from us – this is the feeling of Disgust.


The emotion Disgust in the Watercolor series of sketches.

A Matter of Trust

Merriam-Webster defines trust as,

: belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.

: an arrangement in which someone’s property or money is legally held or managed by someone else or by an organization (such as a bank) for usually a set period of time

: an organization that results from the creation of a trust

When we feel Trust about someone or something, we make several assumptions – of prediction, interdependence, belief and reciprocity. There is risk in making these assumptions.

First, we have a mental model that predicts how someone will behave in the future situations. We envision different scenarios and believe we know how these scenarios will unfold. This reduces anxiety and worry, and allows us to be open and vulnerable.

Second, we are open and vulnerable about our emotions, without concern that the other person will take advantage of our openness. We believe that they will treat our openness with compassion and understanding. We expect that they will not use it for their own benefit, or harm us with the information we disclose.

Third, without full knowledge of their intentions or motivations, we believe someone will do what they promise. We give up something valuable or precious, without certainty that the other person will behave as we expect. But we believe the positive intent of the other person.

Finally, Trust requires future delivery of reciprocity. We give up something now, and believe that the other person has the ability (not just the intent) to do what we expect in the future. So we act now – we share resources, insights, feelings, etc., knowing that in future, should we need that help, it will be offered to us.

Trust involves risk that these assumptions will not be true. We may be wrong about our prediction of someone’s behavior. Our confidences may be shared in ways we did not expect. People may not have the intent or ability to follow through in the way we presume. Trust is so essential for cooperation, information sharing, problem solving, and conflict resolution that we accept these risks.

In the Caricature series of Sketches, the artist displays two people shaking hands to symbolize Trust. Shaking hands involves touching which is a very important to establish and convey Trust. Our skin is the largest organ, the first sense that brings us information of the outside world, and a very important way to share emotional signals that symbolize Trust. This sketch is an elegant way to demonstrate the emotion of Trust.


The emotion Trust in the Caricature series of sketches.

The Watercolors artist approached Trust differently. Trust is an emotion that is shared by living beings. For the sketch, the artist displayed a bird sitting on a human hand, pecking and eating the food offered in the hand. The bird has overcome the natural suspicion and fear of its species to Trust a human. It is a wonderful demonstration of Trust across species.


The emotion Trust in the Watercolor series of sketches.

Is Anger Bad?


Merriam-Webster defines anger as, “a strong feeling of being upset or annoyed because of something wrong or bad : the feeling that makes someone want to hurt other people, to shout, etc. : the feeling of being angry”.

When we feel fear, it is because of an imminent physical threat. But anger is provoked by something we hear or see which makes us feel wronged, makes us feel our boundaries have been violated. Without even knowing it we can cycle very quickly from fear to anger, e.g., when we swerve to avert a collision in traffic. The incipient fear of an accident is instantaneously replaced by anger at the other driver’s poor driving.

Fear and anger result in arousal of our central nervous system. But while fear makes us feel cold and clammy, with anger we feel heat and fire. Physically, our heart rate and blood pressure increases, our muscles tense and make us quiver and shake. Our mind is turbulent – we feel wronged, that what is happening is unjust, unfair or undeserved. Our actions signal this agitation in body and mind – we yell or scream, clench our teeth, tense our body and want to explode, hit something or someone.

Anger has many benefits. Anger helps us express our value system and morals when we feel something is unfair or unjust, and it can motivate us to reach our goals in the face of problems and barriers. Anger is a signal to others that we are upset and annoyed, that there is a problem that needs to be resolved. Anger can help us understand our needs and come up with a plan to meet those needs.

We are also aware that there are many downsides of anger when we do not manage it well. Anger makes people uncomfortable and can lead to poor choices and outcomes.

In the Caricatures series of sketches, the artist has displayed anger through faces turned away from each other. Each feels wronged over some injustice or unfairness, and because of their anger, they are not communicating. Their emotions are hot, faces are red, steam is rising above their heads. Each is waiting for the other to make the first move to resolve the situation. We’ve all been in this situation in our relationships.


The emotion Anger in the Caricature series of sketches.

In the Watercolors series of sketches, the artist shows a human eye with a burning flame to communicate the idea that anger is a fire inside us. Fire shows how strongly we feel at being wronged, while the visibility of the blaze communicates the feeling of anger to others.


The emotion Anger in the Watercolor series of sketches.

The Story of Fear

Merriam-Webster defines fear as, “to be afraid (of something or someone); to expect or worry about (something bad or unpleasant); to be afraid and worried”.

Fear is the emotion we feel when there is a specific and immediate threat to our physical self. We address this threat through the “fight or flight” response, or, in cases of extreme terror, through the “freeze response”.

Fear is a basic emotion tapping into a very primitive involuntary circuit. When we encounter fear, it takes over the brain and the body, elbowing out all other thoughts, and leading to bodily processes of sweating and shaking. Other rapid and instinctive actions include expanding sensory surfaces to take in more information by raising eyebrows, opening eyes wide, and stretching lips horizontally to scream or shout.

Fear can also be a story that we tell ourselves. This story may involve the future development of a threat towards something we value – security, health, life, money, or property. These fears are often learned, can be as real as the those involving imminent physical danger, and are different but closely related to anxiety. While fear is the focus on “a known external danger”, anxiety is “a generalized response to an unknown threat or internal conflict”.

In the Caricatures series of sketches, the artist depicts Fear by a person cowering under the bedcovers at the sight of spectral arms reaching out towards the person. The hair is standing on end, the face is covered, the eyes are wide, and danger is imminent. Everyone will recognize this feeling of fear – where all you want to do is to make the fear inducing object go away.

The emotion Fear in the Caricature series of Sketches

The emotion Fear in the Caricature series of Sketches

The artist preparing the Watercolors series of sketches used different imagery, but equally evocative of the feeling of fear. A person is entering a pitch black room and is becoming aware of something inside the room. The image plays up our human unease with threats that lie waiting for us in darkness. It also represents imminent personal danger and the story we tell ourselves of a developing threat.

The emotion Fear in the Watercolor series of Sketches

The emotion Fear in the Watercolor series of Sketches

The Importance of Sadness

Merriam-Webster defines sad as, “affected with or expressive of grief and unhappiness.”

Happy and Sad are a core pair of opposite emotions felt by every human being. Just like everyone has felt what it means to be happy, everyone has felt sad at some point in their lives.

The Pixar movie, Inside Out, showed the character emotion of Sadness was as important to Riley as the emotion of Joy. Sadness assists Riley in telling her parents that she needs help, that she is missing her old life in Minnesota. Sadness helps Riley come to terms with her new life in San Francisco

So what makes human beings sad and why is it a basic emotion?

Sadness has to do with loss – loss of light, loss of a loved one, loss of an expected future, etc.

Sadness helps us remember that our reality at this moment is different from our past expectations. We don’t repeat the same errors because Sadness helps us learn about ourselves and understand how we make decisions.

For Caricatures, the artist depicted Sadness as a bluish – gray cloud with a downcast face and rounded shoulders. The cloud is all-encompassing, in a full downpour, no ray of light to brighten up any part of it. The downcast face is averted without eye contact, and the lips are turned down in a picture of suffering. The body language expresses unhappiness, resignation and defeat.

The emotion Sad from the Caricature series of Sketches

The emotion Sad in the Caricature series of Sketches

The artist for Watercolors prepared an image with a universal symbol of sadness, a human eye with a tear rolling down. Why is this unmistakably a sign of sadness? When we are sad we kick off a series of chemical processes in our brain and that part of our nervous system that we do not consciously control, the autonomic nervous system, which leads to our eyes producing tears. We can relate to this image, since each of us has experienced this truth – when we are sad, we cry and produce tears from our eyes.

The emotion Sad from the Watercolors series of Sketches

The emotion Sad in the Watercolor series of Sketches

What Makes You Happy?

VoxHumans is designed to allow humans to share their feelings anonymously with image and text. The image could be a photo – either from the camera roll or snapped at that moment. After using a photo, since VoxHumans is designed to be anonymous, the user is given the option to anonymize the photo. Alternatively, the image could be a prepared drawing, a “sketch”, that communicates the emotion selected, and is anonymous since it is available to all users.

Since VoxHumans has 24 emotions, there are 24 sketches, one sketch per emotion, in two distinct sketch styles, drawn by two different artists. These styles, Caricatures and Watercolors, communicate emotions visually through unambiguous images that are gender neutral and culture independent.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll display and discuss each of these emotions, but today, I want to begin with Happy.

Merriam Webster’s defines Happy as “feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life and situation”.

Happiness has been the subject of research, TV shows, and movies.

Visualize yourself “Happy”. What image do you see in your mind? For each of us, a different memory likely comes to mind – childhood activities, playing an instrument, with friends or a pet, or other life events, such as the marriage, or the birth of a child. The list of situations, activities and objects that could make us happy is just about infinite. The challenge for the artists was to encapsulate this emotion – Happy – in a single image. Each artist met this challenge in a different way.

For Caricatures, the artist depicted happiness through a human pulled aloft by a balloon. The human, with a big smile on their face is relishing the experience of soaring up in the sky, where everyone can look up and see their happiness. There is pleasure and meaning and the emotion is unmistakable.

Caricature_emotion - Happy

The emotion Happy in the Caricature series of Sketches

The artist for Watercolors showed a human hand holding skyward a bright candy stick, for everyone and themselves to see and savor the victory of candy acquisition. Perhaps this was a child that finally convinced their parents to buy them this candy. Perhaps this was the hand of an adult reliving their childhood memory. This image shows a quintessentially human action, signaling something of pleasure and meaning, by holding it up and displaying it for everyone to see.

Watercolor_emotion - Happy

The emotion Happy in the Watercolor series of sketches.

A user can adopt one of these predefined sketches to create a Vox that shares their feeling of happiness. Then, using text, the user can share the specific reason that is making them happy. Sketch and text together make it simple and effortless to create a Vox that shares emotions anonymously.

Color and Emotion

It seems clear and obvious that color should be able to evoke different emotions in humans. For example, the color “Red” evokes feelings like Rage, Aggression, or Love (Passion). Or the color “Blue” can evoke Sadness, Optimism, or Trust. The first major published work on the association between color and emotion was Goethe with his book Theory of Colors.

However, it is less obvious whether this association between a color and emotion is culture specific or universal, e.g., does Red evoke the same emotions in East Asia as it does in Western Culture. The most comprehensive effort I have seen so far is from Information is Beautiful.

The different meanings of colors in various cultures

The different meanings of colors in various cultures

While comprehensive, the graphic above is very complex. It is difficult to see the relationships between different cultures and colors. To make this visualization easier, I created a 2 x 2 matrix that compares and contrasts these relationships.

Comparison of emotional meaning of different colors in various cultures

Comparison of emotional meaning of different colors in various cultures

In the matrix above, the Y-axis represents the different colors from Warm colors such as Red, Yellow and Orange to the Neutral (or Achromatic) colors White, Gray and Black to the Cool colors Blue, Purple and Green. The X-axis represents Culture, spanning East Asia (China and Japan) to Western Culture (USA and Europe).

Some differences jump out by using this approach. In East Asia, the Warm colors of Red, Orange and Yellow are associated with Happiness, Optimism, Joy and Love. Whereas in Western Culture, these Warm colors are associated with Love (Passion), Alarm, Rage, and Aggression.

In East Asia, the Cooler colors of Blue, Green and Purple are associated with Harmony (Calm) or Hope. However, in Western Culture, these Cooler colors are associated with emotions like Happiness, Optimism, Trust, Love, Pride.

Finally, the Neutral colors of White, Gray and Black broadly evoke emotions like Sadness, Remorse, Grief and Submission, Purity, etc. This is true even though a specific color such as White may represent Purity in Western culture, and Loss in Eastern cultures.

The conclusion from this matrix is that there isn’t a universal mapping of color to emotion that spans all human cultures. Because of these differences, the VoxHumans app does not ascribe a color for each emotion, e.g., Red representing Optimism, or Blue representing Trust.

How do I know what I’m feeling?

Picture a scenario.

Scenario 1: It’s your first day at work (or school).

Your mind is full of questions. What will other people be like? How long before you feel comfortable and fit in? Will you say something that will make them look at you weirdly?


Scenario 2: You were supposed to go to the mall with your friend.

But she went with someone else. You’re confused and don’t know why she did that.


Scenario 3: You’re back home after spending several years abroad.

You miss the foreign country and the friends you had there. You wonder if you made the right decision. People at home seem different from how you remember them.

We feel a flood of emotions in each of these scenarios. We process so many thoughts that it is hard to articulate anything specific. We feel the emotions intensely, yet there is a cloudiness, a diffuseness, to them. We cannot pinpoint a single overarching emotion. All of us have encountered such situations and the accompanying fuzziness in our thoughts.

Being able to work through and understand our emotions at times like these can be very important. By identifying our feelings we can understand how to cope. We can communicate with those close to us. We can address the source of our feelings. We can take time to heal or reach out for help.

But how to make sense of the jumble of feelings in our head?

I would suggest that the best approach is by writing down the answers to the question of “What am I feeling?”, against the four pairs of basic emotions possessed by all human beings:

  1. Am I feeling Happy or Sad?
  2. Am I feeling Fear or Anger?
  3. Am I feeling Trust or Disgust?
  4. Am I feeling Surprise or Anticipation?

As we quiz ourselves, the answers may show that only a few emotions are relevant. For example, I may be feeling Fear and Anticipation in the first scenario, Sad and Surprise in the second scenario, and Sad and Fear in the third scenario. Just knowing the mix of feelings may be enough to give us clarity and make us feel better.

An optional next step may be to see how these basic emotions create a blended emotion. Because the basic emotions combine to create a blended emotion, we are unable to pinpoint a single emotion, and feel confused and fuzzy.

  • Scenario 1: Fear + Anticipation = Anxiety
  • Scenario 2: Sad + Surprise = Disappointment
  • Scenario 3: Sad + Fear = Guilt

Through this exercise and with this knowledge we can not only understand ourselves better, but can also figure out what actions to take in order to feel differently.

Happiness and July 4th

Yesterday was July 4th, and I thought about the Founding Fathers of the USA as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

“…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Those words written 239 years ago, raised a question in my mind: How has the meaning of Happiness changed over the years? That is, what would have evoked happiness in 1776 and is it different in 2015?

It would seem the happiness from the milestones of a life well lived would be the unchanged by the passage of centuries, e.g., the birth of a child, a wedding, a successful recovery from illness, the graduation from a course of study or an apprenticeship. These life events are unchanged because they are tied to the human life cycle and because they share common characteristics. First, they point towards a change in societal status and role, with new responsibilities and rewards. For example, the birth of a child turns two individuals into parents, and leads to the responsibility of bringing up the child. There is the reward of seeing the world anew through the eyes of that child. Other milestones have similar changes in role and responsibilities. Second, these milestones are not easily achieved by everyone and often involve effort over periods of time. For example, graduating from high school or university represents the culmination of years of effort and perseverance and not everyone is successful. Similarly, the recovery from an illness, perhaps small pox in the 18th century, or cancer today, is an occasion for celebration and happiness.

Also unchanged is happiness due to stimulation of human senses. The feelings evoked by the feel of grass underneath bare feet, the light from the starry night sky, the smell of baked bread, the tart taste of an apple or the song of a nightingale, have not changed in the intervening centuries. Of course, feeling happy on receiving this sensory input depends on the individual’s state of mind. Nonetheless, we continue to rely on our senses to feel happy in the moment.

Finally, and also unchanged, is happiness due to liberty and the ability to make our own life choices. How we choose to spend our leisure and work time, whom we choose to see and meet, where we choose to live, what we choose to say, etc., all of these are still critical determinants of our happiness.

Thus while life is very different from 1776 to 2015, I would argue when it comes to happiness, the fundamental drivers are unchanging and still the same. Stay happy and hope you had a great time celebrating our National Holiday!

© 2021 VoxHumans Blog

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑