Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on October 31, 2014
As humans we all have emotional responses to change and transition.
New research helps to explain the emotion of sadness and why sadness seems to last longer than other emotions.
In the study, investigators discovered a person can feel sad up to 240 times longer than they feel ashamed, surprised, irritated, or even bored.
The reason for this extended response is complex although one reason is logical — sadness often goes hand in hand with events of greater impact such as death or accidents.
“The extended duration of sadness allows one more time to mull over and cope with what happened to fully comprehend it,” say researchers Philippe Verduyn and Saskia Lavrijsen of the University of Leuven in Belgium.
Their research, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, is the first to provide clear evidence to explain why some emotions last a longer time than others.
The Belgian researchers asked 233 high school students to recollect recent emotional episodes and report their duration.
The participants also had to answer questions about the strategies they use to appraise and deal with these emotions.
Researchers discovered various emotions have different duration’s — that is, some last longer than others.
Out of a set of 27 emotions, sadness lasted the longest, whereas shame, surprise, fear, disgust, boredom, being touched, irritated, or feeling relief were often over quickly.
The finding that boredom was among the shorter emotions experienced was surprising.
Verduyn and Lavrijsen believe this means that even though time seems to pass slowly when one is bored, an episode of boredom typically doesn’t last that long.
A key finding of the research was that emotions that last a shorter time are typically prompted by events that have relatively low importance attached to them.
On the other hand, long-lasting emotions tend to be caused by events that have strong implications for a person’s major concerns.
Verduyn says some of these implications may only become apparent over time. This delayed reaction can cause the emotion to be maintained or strengthened. The feeling therefore endures while a person rethinks the events and consequences over and over again.
Duration was found to be a dimension that can differentiate between otherwise very similar emotions.
For instance, Verduyn and Lavrijsen found that guilt is an emotion that persists much longer than shame, while anxiety lingers longer than fear.
The feeling (either a positive or negative emotion) associated with an event one thinks about over and over or on a persistent basis, is more likely to persist.
“Rumination is the central determinant of why some emotions last longer than others. Emotions associated with high levels of rumination will last longest,” says Verduyn,
“Emotions of shorter duration are typically — but, of course, not always — elicited by events of relatively low importance.
“On the other hand, long-lasting emotions tend to be about something highly important,” Lavrijsen explains further.