Sadness 'lasts longer' than other emotions

Monday November 3 2014

"Sadness lasts 240 times longer than other emotions, study claims," is the somewhat sobering news on the Mail Online.

Researchers surveyed 233 young adults from a Belgian high school with an average age of 17, and found emotions vary widely in duration.

Of the 27 emotions studied, sadness lasted the longest, whereas shame, surprise, fear, disgust, boredom, feeling touched, irritation and relief were the shortest-duration emotions. 

Emotions that lasted longer were associated with more important event triggers, as well as more reflection about the feelings and the consequences of the event that prompted the emotion.

While the study is intriguing, it has a number of limitations to consider. Chiefly, the sample size (233) was small for a cross-sectional study and recruited a relatively homogenous (similar) group of students, who were aged around 17 years.

Young students who are coming out of the emotional turmoil that is puberty, as well as facing exam stress, may be more likely to report feeling sad for longer periods than other groups. This means it is uncertain whether similar findings would be seen in other populations.

While the results give us a tentative estimate of the duration of different emotions in a group of young adults, this can't be generalised to other age and demographic groups at this stage.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the faculty of psychology and educational sciences at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

It was funded by the University of Leuven Research Fund, the Interuniversity Attraction Poles Programme, which is financed by the Belgian government, and a postdoctoral research fellowship from the Fund for Scientific Research, Flanders.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Motivation and Emotion. This is an open-access study, meaning anyone can read it free online.

Generally, the Mail Online reported the study results accurately, although it tended to take the findings at face value, without discussing any of the limitations inherent in the research.

However, the Mail did include a useful infographic showing the duration of all the different emotions tested, with sadness being noticeably higher.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional study investigating which emotions last longest and why.

The researchers wanted to describe any differences in the duration of different emotions and attempt to explain what might be behind these differences.

From a health perspective, the researchers suggested this might be useful because the duration of emotional disturbances are symptoms of some mental health conditions, such as depression.

The researchers specifically looked at emotions, which they outlined were distinct from moods, because emotions start in response to an external or internal event.

For example, you may wake up in a grumpy mood, whereas receiving an unexpected tax bill stimulates emotions such as anxiety and anger.

What did the research involve?

The research team asked a small group of young adults to recall the duration of past emotions, their triggers and coping strategies.

The team recruited 233 high school students (112 women, 118 men, three no gender reported) with an average age of 17 years. Participation in the study was a compulsory part of their high school course.

Using a long questionnaire, participants were asked to recollect emotional episodes, report their duration, and answer questions regarding their appraisal of the emotion-eliciting event, as well as any strategies they used to regulate the emotion.

Each questionnaire had nine emotions to prompt recall from a larger set of 27.

These included admiration, anger, anxiety, feeling touched, boredom, compassion, contentment, desperation, disappointment, disgust, enthusiasm, fear, gratitude, guilt, hatred, hope, humiliation, irritation, jealousy, joy, pride, relaxation, relief, sadness, shame, stress and surprise.

Each questionnaire had a different set of nine questions. The different questionnaires were then randomly distributed to participants.

Participants were asked to rate the emotion-eliciting event using a number of appraisal dimensions. One of the main ones asked participants to indicate to what extent the event that elicited the emotion was important to them (importance).

They were also asked to report on a number of coping strategies, including to what extent they "kept on thinking about their feelings and the consequences of the event that elicited the emotion (rumination)".

To see whether the findings depended on the way emotion duration was defined, half of the participants were told that an emotion ends as soon it is no longer felt for the first time, whereas the other half were told that an emotion ends as soon as one has fully recovered from the event. All participants had the difference between emotions and moods explained to them.

What were the basic results?

Out of 27 emotions assessed, sadness lasted the longest, whereas shame, surprise, fear, disgust, boredom, feeling touched, irritation and relief were the shortest-lived emotions.

One appraisal dimension and one regulation strategy accounted for almost half of the variability in duration between emotions.

Compared with short emotions, persistent emotions were elicited by events of high importance and were associated with high levels of rumination (reflection or musing on an event).

The study group reported these broad findings held true across the two different emotion duration definitions, as well as when taking into account how recent and intense the emotion being recalled was.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The research team summed up that their "present study revealed that meaningful differences in duration between emotions exist and that these differences can be partially explained by differences in one appraisal dimension (event importance) and one regulation strategy (rumination)".

Conclusion

This small cross-sectional survey of young adults suggests emotions vary widely in duration. Of the 27 emotions the researchers looked at, sadness lasted the longest by far.

Emotions that lasted longer were associated with more important event triggers, as well as more rumination about the feelings and the consequences of the event that elicited the emotion.

The study is intriguing, but has a number of limitations to consider. The sample size, for example, was small for a cross-sectional study at just 233.

It also recruited a relatively homogenous group of students aged around 17 years, so emotional duration may be very different for other age groups and groups from other educational backgrounds.

The accuracy of recalling emotions may be a further source of error, as some emotions may be far easier to recall than others: consider recalling instances of hatred, compared with hope.

This was partly addressed by the researchers by adjusting for the intensity of the emotion, but may not have completely eliminated a potential recall bias.

The results are also perhaps only as would be expected. For example, it makes logical sense that sadness is likely to be a more persistent emotion.

Sadness is likely to be influenced by a particular situation or trigger and, if there is no immediate resolution to this situation, continuing to reflect on it or being troubled by it is likely to result in a longer-lasting emotional effect.

Meanwhile, emotions such as surprise or disgust are likely to be the result of more transient events that would not have longer-term effects on the person, so they would be expected to be much shorter-term emotions.

Overall, the results give us some indication of the emotional duration of a group of young adults, but limited wider implications can be drawn from this research.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Choices