Emotions, like fish, can be difficult to catch and so slippery as to be difficult to grasp. After all, some are rare — how often, for example, do you feel mortification? — while others are simply difficult to identify. Having studied the ungraspable, researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium found that sadness may last up to 240 times longer than surprise, fear, irritation, or even boredom. Digging deeper, the researchers believe the reason for differences in duration is linked to lifetime importance. “Compared to short emotions, persistent emotions are typically elicited by events of high importance, and are associated with high levels of rumination,” noted the authors in the conclusion of their new study.

Changing Over Time?

Each of our emotions begins with a specific event, and so, compared to a mood, an emotion’s beginning is easy to identify. The end of an emotion, though, may be another matter entirely. Sometimes the intensity disappears permanently all at once and for good, while at other times, it evaporates only to reappear at full or greater force. To contribute to a richer understanding of emotion, Drs. Philippe Verduyn and Saskia Lavrijsen decided to focus on just one feature of emotions, how long they last from beginning to end or total duration time. What they found along the way may cause some surprise.

The researchers began their study by asking 233 high school students to recollect recent emotional episodes and report their duration. Nearly half the participants were women, though three did not report gender, and the average age was 17. The researchers also asked the participants detailed questions about how they dealt with their emotions and further explored their responses.

What did Verduyn and Lavrijsen discover about feelings? Out of 27 emotions, sadness lasted the longest, whereas shame, surprise, fear, disgust, boredom, irritation, relief, and feeling “touched” were often short-lived. In fact, sadness lasted up to 240 times as long as these briefer experiences. The research team also learned that, among similar emotions, duration was likely to be the differentiating factor. Guilt, for instance, persisted much longer than shame, while anxiety lingered longer than fear.

More importantly, persistence of a particular feeling was associated with importance. “Emotions of shorter duration are typically — but, of course, not always — elicited by events of relatively low importance,” Lavrijsen explained. “On the other hand, long-lasting emotions tend to be about something highly important." In many cases, a long-lasting emotion is caused by an event that has strong implications in a person's life. Verduyn explained how sometimes, the implications of a particular choice or event in your life only become apparent over time, and this is what causes the emotion to be maintained or strengthened. Over and over again, you may think about something that happened, what you did at the time, and the ultimate consequences, and this is what causes the emotion to endure.

Another finding? Generally, the women experienced their feelings for a longer duration than did the men. Acknowledging that age may influence emotional duration, the researchers suggest future studies include participants within a wide range of ages. Perhaps they will discover, then, that as women age their emotions fade more quickly, while as men grow older, their feelings begin to endure.

Source: Verduyn P, Lavrijsen S. Which emotions last longest and why: the role of event importance and rumination. Motivation and Emotion. 2014.