When Sadness Lingers…


Feelings of surprise vanish in an instant, while sorrow can hang on for months. Why is that? New research from the journal Motivation and Emotion offers answers.

Of all your emotions, sadness tends to last the longest, the research data show. Anger, hope, pride, and enthusiasm round out the top five when it comes to enduring feelings. Each of these sentiments tend to last a full day or more, the study shows. On the other hand, shame, relief, disgust, and surprise usually evaporate in less than an hour.

There are two factors that explain why some emotions stick around while others hit the road in a hurry. The first is obvious: Emotions tied to important life events are often the slow-burning, long-lasting type. The death of a loved one is something that affects your life in lasting ways, the study authors say. The same is true for a new job, which can inspire extended periods of hope or enthusiasm.

But the second factor that determines the staying power of your emotions is less obvious. The study authors call it rumination. “Rumination is repetitively thinking about one’s feelings and the consequences of the event that elicited those feelings,” says study coauthor Phillipe Verduyn, a psychologist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. Basically, your brain replays the event over and over again in an attempt to come to grips with the emotions you’re experiencing.

“These type of thoughts do not add much meaning and do not provide new insights,” Verduyn explains, calling rumination a “passive strategy” for coping. But they do strengthen an emotion, like adding fuel to a fire, he adds. That can be a good thing if you’re ruminating about a positive or inspiring event. But if you’re struggling to overcome a source of sadness or anger, rumination is bad news.

Unfortunately, there’s not always a lot you can do about it. When something sad happens in your life, rumination is an unavoidable part of your brain’s coming to grips with reality, Verduyn’s research indicates.

When it comes to feelings like anger or anxiety, distracting yourself with something funny may break up the negative vibes, research suggests. Practicing meditation may also be beneficial. A recent study from Massachusetts General Hospital shows that meditation can strengthen the parts of your brain involved with emotion control, and so helps your brain process and cope with sad or negative emotions in healthier ways.

By Markham Heid

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