Most people feel sad longer than they feel ashamed, surprised, irritated or bored because sadness is most often triggered by important events that require time for emotional and cognitive processing, according to University of Leuven’s Philippe Verduyn and Saskia Lavrijsen.
This finding that emotions triggered by personally-important events are longer-lasting may seen intuitively obvious, but Verduyn and Lavrjsen empirically validated earlier hypotheses suggested by University of Amsterdam’s Joep Sonnemans and Nico Frijda as well as University of Leuven’s Verduyn, Iven Van Mechelen, and Francis Tuerlinckx.
They asked more than 230 volunteers to remember recent emotional episodes and report their duration.
Participants also described their strategies to evaluate and deal with emotions categorized by Swiss Center for Affective Sciences’ s Klaus R. Scherer, including admiration, anger, anxiety, being 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.
Volunteers rated coping strategies according to a model of emotional regulation developed by Stanford’s James Gross and Ross A. Thompson of University of California Davis:
- Situation selection – Entering the situation that elicited emotion
- Situation modification – Trying to change the event that elicited the emotion
- Distraction – Attempting to distract attention from the emotional situation
- Rumination – Continued thinking about feelings and consequences of the event
- Reflecting – Considering the emotion-eliciting event, but not repetitively ruminating
- Reappraisal – Trying to differently view the emotion-eliciting event
- Emotional suppression – Attempting to stop experiencing the emotion
- Expressive suppression – Trying not expressing the emotion.
Participants also rated their appraisal of the situation that triggered emotion based on Scherer’s Geneva Appraisal Questionnaire:
- Event importance – Extent the event that elicited the emotion was important to them
- Event impact – Advantages and disadvantages of the event that elicited the emotion
- Other responsibility – Degree that someone else was responsible for the emotion-eliciting event
- Self responsibility – Degree that they were responsible for the emotion-eliciting event
- Problem-focused coping – Extent that they could change something about the emotion- eliciting event
- Emotion-focused coping – Extent that they could change something about the emotion elicited by the event
- Expectedness – Degree to which they anticipated the emotion-eliciting event
- Negative impact on self-image – Extent to which they judged the emotion-evoking event as reducing self-esteem
- Injustice – Degree to which they judged the emotion-eliciting event as unjust
- Immorality – Extent to which they judged the emotion-eliciting event as immoral.
Verduyn and Lavrijsen differentiated emotions from moods by telling volunteers that an emotion is always elicited by an external or internal event with a specific onset point.
The team also provided two differing definitions of an emotion’s end point:
Half the participants were told than an emotion ends as soon as the emotion is no longer felt for the first time (except for sleep) whereas the remaining volunteers were told than an emotion ends as soon as one has fully recovered from the event.
Emotion duration differed for similar emotions, such as persistent guilt compared with transient shame, and longer-lasting anxiety contrasted with intense but fleeting fear.
Two regulation strategies – rumination and reflection – and one appraisal dimension – event importance – were associated with increased emotion duration, supporting theories by KU Leuven’s Iven Van Mechelen, Verduyn, and Karen Brans, and empirical research by Yale’s Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.
Of these 27 emotions, sadness lasted the longest.
Other positive and negative emotions, including shame, surprise, fear, disgust, boredom, being touched, irritated or feeling relief, rapidly dissipated, supporting other findings by Verduyn and Brans.
Though boredom, shame, and fear seem to endure endlessly, this research indicates that they are more transient than most people expect.
These unpleasant experiences pass, as do significant incidents that require time to “process.”
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