By Namu Ju

In today’s culture of self-help books and ‘the power of positive thinking,’ sadness is commonly regarded as one of the worst negative emotions. We often reject feelings of sorrow out of reflex or fear.

The unrealistic hope for constant happiness, or at least to avoid sadness, leads not only to inevitable disappointment and guilt but can also be unhealthy. Whether we like it or not, sadness is an important emotion to help us live meaningful, fulfilling, and authentic lives.

Sadness Allows Us To Get To Know Ourselves Better

When we begin to take note of what causes our low moods, we come to know ourselves better. Like every other emotion, sadness is an innate response to a situation, circumstances, and the people around us. Dr Paul Ekman, an American psychologist and emotions expert, lists common sadness triggers  as including rejection, endings, sickness or death of a loved one, loss of some aspect of identity, and disappointment by an outcome.

Sadness indicates our values and desires, which is a powerful aspect of ourselves to  know and acknowledge consciously. While values and desires may not always align, they are the determining factors of all our decisions, whether significant or every day, from what to eat for breakfast to whom to write into your will. Paying attention to what makes us sad will enable us to understand our motivations better and the way we hope to construct our lives.

Sadness may also indicate health problems, such as hormonal changes, irregular sleeping patterns, and various chronic illnesses.

Sadness Can Motivate

Happiness signals that we are in a safe and positive situation, one that needs little change. Sadness, though, indicates that something needs to be fixed and works as motivation for change.

Dr Joseph Forgas, professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, conducted a study in which participants were shown either happy or sad films to induce the respective moods. They were then asked to  perform a demanding cognitive task with difficult questions. Participants who watched the happy movies spent less time on and attempted fewer questions. They also scored fewer correct answers than participants who were shown sad films. Those who were put in a negative mood made more effort on questions and achieved better results.

Forgas’ study indicates that people who are in happier moods may be less motivated to exert effort, while sadness can fuel perseverance with challenging tasks.

Sadness Strengthens Social Interactions

While happiness may increase positive interactions between people, sadness seems to sharpen particular social and observational skills.

Studies have shown that people in a sad mood tend to be more polite, observant, and elaborate, while people in a happy mood are more direct and less polite. Unhappy people are also more persuasive than happy people. People in a low mood were observed to produce more effective and convincing arguments regardless of the popularity of the argument position. 

Studies utilising the ‘Ultimatum Game’ have also indicated a high correlation between sadness and fair decision making, and even generosity. Sad people take more time to consider others’ needs, the fairness of decisions, and are more likely to reject offers unfair to themselves and others.

Regardless of how isolating sadness can feel, it also increases the desire for social connectedness. Experiments have proven sadness, especially from social loss, enhances attention to nonverbal cues, which is a primary source of information in our daily social connections, and desire to engage in social behaviours.

Don’t Confuse Sadness With Depression

No matter the intensity, sadness is a necessary yet temporary emotion and passes with time—which is a crucial difference between sadness and depression.

Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, is a medical illness that negatively affects every aspect of life. Depression involves feelings of sadness, but depression lasts longer and can be severely debilitating.

Major symptoms of depression include:

  • consistent sadness or depressed mood
  • loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • changes in appetite leading to weight loss or gain
  • loss of energy and increased fatigue
  • inability to concentrate or make decisions
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • self-harming
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Depression symptoms can vary in range and intensity, and symptoms must last at least two weeks for a proper diagnosis. If you feel your mood reflects a major depressive disorder more than a temporary emotion, it’s essential to reach out to a health professional. With psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medications, depression is one of the most treatable mental illnesses.

While countless studies exist on the benefits of sadness, it’s important to remember that looking for reasons to be happy about feeling sad still feeds into valuing happiness over sorrow. Sadness is a natural and necessary emotion each  person experiences in many forms throughout their life. Denying and devaluing sadness ultimately leads to denying and devaluing a crucial part of our humanity.

So go ahead and be sad! Let yourself be human. Like every other emotion, sadness will pass with time.