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Why Sadness Stays With Us For So Long

Illustrated by Austin Watts.
In the midst of a depressing breakup, it can be hard to imagine feeling anything but sad for quite a while. This is no failure of the imagination: New research confirms that the saddest times stick with us the longest.
The study, published online today in Motivation and Emotion, examined how long 27 different emotions stay with us. To do so, the researchers gave an extensive emotion questionnaire to 233 high school students. As part of the questionnaire, participants were asked to recall specific instances of feeling each of the 27 emotions. Then, they had to rate how long each emotion lasted, how intense the episode was, what strategies they used to regulate that emotion, and how important the initial emotion-triggering event was to them.
Consistent with the findings of previous research, sadness lasted the longest of all the emotions tested. With a median duration of 48 hours until the first return to baseline (the participant's regular-old level of feelings) and 120 hours for a permanent return, sadness beat out such heavy hitters as hope, joy, and pride. The results here also showed that feelings of shame, surprise, and boredom lasted the shortest amounts of time. Emotions that lasted the longest were usually triggered by an event that participants rated as important.
The research also showed that the emotions you think about for longer last longer; women experienced more lasting emotions overall (we're usually more comprehensive thinkers). However, this study relied on self-reported data and therefore has its limitations. Plus, its participants' average age was 17 years old; your emotional-processing capabilities have probably changed a lot since high school, hopefully for the better. Either way, even big, bad sadness fades over time — for both teens and adults. Maybe not for sad cats, though.

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