We have all been there at some point in our lives: that emotional span of time after a difficult breakup, the death of a loved one or an injury, when it seems like climbing out of the pit of despair is an insurmountable task. But why does sadness last longer than feelings of being ashamed, surprised, irritated or bored? A new study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion examines this question.

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“Emotions associated with high levels of rumination will last longest,” says Philippe Verduyn.

The researchers, led by Philippe Verduyn and Saskia Lavrijsen of the University of Leuven in Belgium, say differences in emotion duration have only been assessed for a small number of emotions, and any differences observed have not been clearly explained.

As such, the team wanted to look into this topic with more detail in order to account for differences in how long certain emotions last. They had 233 high school students recall recent emotional experiences and report their duration.

In addition, the students answered questions about strategies they used to judge and handle these emotions.

Out of 27 emotions in total, the researchers found that sadness was the longest-lasting emotion; shame, surprise, fear, disgust, boredom, being touched, irritation and relief, however, were the shortest-lasting emotions.

The team was surprised to find that boredom was one of the shortest emotions; typically time seems to pass slowly when we are bored. However, they say their results show that an episode of boredom does not actually last very long.

The findings indicate that emotions do not last as long when they arise from events that carry low importance to the individual. However, long-lasting emotions come from events with strong importance attached to them.

For example, sadness is typically linked to events with great impact, such as death or injury, the researchers say. And Verduyn notes that some of these important implications may arise over time, causing the emotion to be strengthened.

Verduyn explains further:

”Rumination is the central determinant of why some emotions last longer than others. Emotions associated with high levels of rumination will last longest.”

In other words, thinking about events and consequences repeatedly – which individuals tend to do more with situations linked to feelings of sadness as a way of coping or comprehending – causes the emotion to endure.

The team also found that the lasting effects of emotions can differ between similar emotions. Guilt, for example, lasts longer than shame, and anxiety lasts longer than fear.

“Emotions of shorter duration are typically – but, of course, not always – elicited by events of relatively low importance,” adds Lavrijsen. “On the other hand, long-lasting emotions tend to be about something highly important.”

They conclude their study by noting that their findings held across emotion duration definitions and when taking into account how recent and intense the emotions were.

Because their study was questionnaire-based and only included high school students, it has limitations, so whether these findings are generalizable to a larger population is currently unknown.

In February of this year, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested the emotional impact of nightmares are typically due to sadness, rather than fear.