I’m a big fan of joy. So much so that I have spent the last decade of my life writing about happiness and am a huge fan of both bubble machines and unicorns. But lately I’ve become convinced that sadness has its place too. Let me explain.
Reacting to Sadness
Sadness happens to all of us—sometimes in heartbreakingly awful ways—but in much of the world we don’t know how to handle it. This can be isolating for those experiencing it and baffling for those trying to help loved ones through tough times.
Having spent eight years researching different cultural approaches to emotions, I began to notice that many of the people I met were so obsessed with the pursuit of happiness that they were phobic of feeling sad. I’d speak to people who had just lost loved ones who would ask how they could be happy. I’d meet people who had recently been made redundant at work, or had become homeless, or had a bad break-up, who’d still ask, “So why aren’t I happy?”
I would try to explain that, sometimes, we need to be sad. Sadness is what we’re supposed to feel after a loss, and sorrow is a sane response when bad things happen.
In the aftermath of a global pandemic, for instance, in a world at war where there are huge social and economic challenges, it’s okay to feel sad. But a lot of us are conditioned to be so averse to “negative emotions” that we don’t even recognize them, much less acknowledge them or give ourselves permission to feel and process them. This was certainly my experience.
When my sister died as I was growing up, no one talked about it. In my community, “successful grief” meant getting on with things, and I was raised with the erroneous belief that what you don’t talk about can’t hurt you. The pursuit of happiness was all that mattered—and happiness, I was taught from a young age, meant never being sad.
I went on to train as a journalist and write books on happiness, speaking about my work internationally. A wise therapist pointed out to me years later that it was no coincidence I’d forged a career in happiness: “You were terrified of being sad!”
I wasn’t the only one.
During my research I’ve become increasingly convinced that many of us have been sold a narrow definition of happiness, a definition that means never being sad or doing hard things. A definition that does all of us a disservice.
“Many people nowadays assume that if they’re not happy, they must be depressed,” says Peg O’Connor, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College, who I call up for advice. “But life isn’t like that—there’s a whole swatch of emotions and ways of being that are viable. As Aristotle says, happiness is an on-going activity; it doesn’t mean that you’re never unhappy or that hard things haven’t happened. No one is happy all the time—sadness is part of the human experience called ‘life.’ ”
It’s important to distinguish between sadness and depression here. Depression is a chronic mental illness that needs help (I write from experience). Sadness, on the other hand, can be an awakening (ditto).
When I refer to sadness as an awakening, I mean it is the temporary emotion that we all feel on occasions when we’ve been hurt or something is wrong in our lives. It’s a message. It can tell us when something is wrong and what to do about it—but we have to listen.
The Upside of Feeling Down
The fear of facing our sadness can feel overwhelming, but the cost of not doing so is far greater. And the longer we wait, the worse it will become. Studies show that if we aim to avoid sadness, even a little, we limit our existence and our capacity to experience other emotions—like joy and happiness—too.
The Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Wegner famously led a thought experiment where subjects were told not to think about white bears. Wegner found that participants routinely thought about the thing they were attempting to avoid. Further studies confirmed that thought suppression (a) is futile and (b) exacerbates the very emotions we’re hoping to swerve.
And in fact, we can all get happier by learning to be sad, better. As the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said, there is “bliss in melancholy and sadness.” Researchers from the University of New South Wales found that accepting and allowing for temporary sadness helps improve our attention to detail, increases perseverance, promotes generosity, and makes us more grateful for what we’ve got.
How to Be Sad
So, how can we do sadness right? I’ve spent the past three years asking some of the best minds in the world this question for my latest book, How to Be Sad (The Key to a Happier Life). Here’s what I learned.
First up, we need to stop fighting sadness. There’s shame attached to feeling sad in a world that tells us we shouldn’t—and shame increases our cortisol levels and decreases our self-esteem and feelings of social worth.
Even crying serves a helpful purpose in our emotional repertoire, with criers typically experience fewer “negative aggressive feelings,” such as rage and disgust, than people who didn’t cry, according to research from the University of Kassel in Germany. A study from Indiana University, Bloomington, found that American football players who cried reported higher levels of self-esteem and were less concerned about peer pressure than their non-crying counterparts.
“We now know that crying is something all humans are programmed to do and that tears serve a purpose,” says Ad Vingerhoets, the “Tear Professor” from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, “and cortisol levels decrease in those who cry, since expressing sadness soothes us.”
Next? We can get some perspective. Many of us will feel as though, if we’re not happy, we must be sad. But this is a particularly Western approach. In East Asian culture, studies show, there is much more acceptance of the idea that, sometimes, we feel happy and sad all at once. Knowing this and recognizing the granularity of our thoughts means that we can be at peace with them.
There’s much to learn from cultures where people are more in touch with their emotions, “good” and “bad.” In Bhutan, for example, crematoriums are located centrally so that children grow up with the idea that loss and death are inevitable. Mourning in Greece is a big, public affair. The Portuguese and Brazilians have the concept of saudade—melancholy for happiness that once was or even the life we merely hoped for. Because a good life isn’t about being jazz-hands happy all the time (and I write this as a woman who loves a show tune).
The Chinese concept of xingfu is often translated as “happiness” in English but actually refers, not to a good mood, but to a good life—one that is sufficient and sustainable and has meaning. It isn’t necessarily an easy, pleasant existence. (In fact, the Chinese character for xing derives from a character that represents torture.) Life may be hard, but it will have meaning. And this should be the goal—a life experiencing our entire emotional spectrum.
As well as broadening our cultural outlook via travel, we can expand our minds via books. Brain scans show that when we read, we mentally rehearse the activities, sights, and sounds of a story, stimulating neural pathways. Reading has also been shown to boost empathy and help us connect.
When we see world through another person’s eyes and feel their sadness, we feel less alone in our own. And it’s all about connection.
Frequency of contact with people we care about is one of the key indicators of well-being, worldwide. But the physical distancing and isolation over the past few years have compromised our social connections, leading many experts to predict that the next epidemic will be loneliness.
Many of us have felt less connected and as though we have less support than before. Women tend to have more friends and socialize more than men, so we’ve felt that loss of connection more keenly. We need to reconnect and we need to talk.
The psychotherapist Julia Samuel says that talking about sadness “does not have to be with a therapist.” What’s most important is “talking to someone who doesn’t interrupt.”
Enlist a friend and make a deal that you will be each other’s “buddy” for a regular check-in. When they talk, listen without interruption and without trying to “fix” anything, and vice versa. This will help you to develop a narrative around your situation, and as Samuel explains, “in enunciating the words, the feelings emerge.”
Finally, do something for someone else. If you’re sad and you just do you, chances are you’ll still be sad. We need to pay the love forward.
Studies show that doing volunteer work makes us feel better. Helping others improves our support networks. Giving our time to do something for someone else, counter-intuitively, makes us feel as though we have more time.
Donating to charity makes us feel good, too, with a Harvard Business School study equating the rise in well-being achieved by donating to charity with a doubling in household income.
The good feeling we get through generosity and volunteering is known as “warm-glow giving” or “helper’s high,” and MRI scans show that our brains literally light up, glowing with the pleasure of doing good. We should help other people because it’s the right thing to do; the “helper’s high” is a bonus.
I’ve tried hard to walk the walk. I’m more in touch with my emotions now, both “good” and “bad.” I’m engaged with and connected to the world around me. And I’m a better friend, daughter, parent, and partner as a result.
Because sadness is going to happen, we might as well know how to do it right.
. . .