Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Why sadness lasts longer than other emotions

Staying positive can feel like an uphill battle. No wonder: when Philippe Verduyn and Saskia Lavrijsen asked over 200 high-school students (average age 17) to reminisce about the duration of their recent emotional experiences, they found that sadness had an unfortunate habit of lingering, more so than any of the other 26 emotions studied, including joy, pride and relief.

Indeed, the average duration of the episodes of sadness recalled by the students was 120 hours. At the other extreme, the most fleeting emotion was shame, which tended to last, on average, just half an hour. Surprise, fear, disgust, boredom, irritation and relief also tended to be short-lived. Joy managed a disappointing average duration of 35 hours. Contrast that with hatred, which averaged 60 hours. Focusing on pairs of the emotions that we usually see as related, guilt was found to last much longer than shame, and anxiety lasted longer than fear.

To find out why some emotions last longer than others, the researchers also asked the students about the events that precipitated their emotional experiences, and how they dealt with each emotional episode once it had started. A clear pattern emerged. More short-lived emotions were usually, though not always, preceded by an event of lesser importance to the participant, as compared with longer-lasting emotions.

Longer-lasting emotions, including sadness, also tended to go hand in hand with rumination as the main response - that is, dwelling on one's feelings and the consequences of the event that triggered those feelings. Together, event importance and amount of rumination accounted for half the variability in the length of different emotional episodes. This is substantial, but of course it leaves plenty of room for other factors unexplored by this research.

The study has some clear shortcomings, including the reliance on a student sample and on participants recalling their past emotional experiences. However, Verduyn and Lavrijsen said theirs is the first ever study to examine the reasons why some emotions last longer than others.

The researchers finish their report with an interesting point - when brain-imaging studies attempt to document the neural correlates of different emotional experiences, they rarely consider the different durations of different emotions. "...[T]he difference in neural signature between emotions may not be a matter of which neural regions are involved," write Verduyn and Lavrijsen, "but when, and for how long neural regions become and remain active."


Verduyn, P., & Lavrijsen, S. (2014). Which emotions last longest and why: The role of event importance and rumination Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-014-9445-y

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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