The importance of sadness: the upside of a bad mood


In the last few decades, ‘happiness’ has been promoted as the normal state of being to which we should all and always aspire. Furthermore, we have been encouraged to personally work on attaining contentment in all aspects of life and to conceal sorrow, or at the very least hastily alleviate it, rather than dwell on feelings of melancholy, sadness, or depression. However, the importance of sadness and the upside of a bad mood has long been recognised by philosophers and is now beginning to be backed up in science and psychology.

A brief history of sadness

Whilst today’s culture demands we must all, and can all, be happy all the time if we just tell ourselves it is so (no matter our personal circumstances),  and seeks to devalue, treat or ignore emotions of melancholy, feeling sad has long been valued as a normal part of being human. From the ancient Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies alike, sadness was valued for its inevitability as a part of life and its important role to play in helping people accept and even anticipate common misfortunes of sorrow, injustice, and loss.

I hold the world but as the world … A stage where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one’ – William Shakespeare, the Merchant of Venice

Creativity has also long been noted as one of the major benefits of sadness. It was perhaps Aristotle who first noticed the tendency of the most creative, witty, and distinguished people to be afflicted by negative emotions and melancholy when he asked: “through what is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics?” With many of history’s greatest achievements across the arts exploring sadness, this was quite a prescient question.

Hippocrates’ early notions of melancholia being linked with an imbalance of the humours were eventually challenged after the turn to science brought about by the Enlightenment. Indeed, William Cullen, a physician and medical scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment, sought to explain diseases of all types as linked to the brain and the physiology of the nervous system, paving the way for melancholia to be reinterpreted as ‘depression’ and, later, the emergence of the medical model of mental illness. Sadness and its associated feelings subsequently became seen as an affective disorder that can, and should, be treated. Although a century ago Freud also noted that those feeling depressed may well have a keener eye for the truth than their happier peers.

More recently, with the invention of ‘functional magnetic resonance imaging’ (fMRI) scanners, scientists have begun to be able to delve deeper into the intricacies of sadness, how it works in the brain and the impact of this on our thoughts and behaviours. These studies have found that whilst happiness remains a healthy tonic in most situations, feeling sad from time to time can provide people with important advantages. Evolutionary theorists also argue all emotions have their role to play so sadness should not be something that we seek to discard altogether.

Thus, in spite of today’s obsession with happiness, and concomitant stigmatisation of emotions linked to sadness, it is clear throughout history that sadness is something we should value. Not least because all of our emotions are multi-faceted and complex and inherently bound up with hints of their opposites, whether in joy or sadness, love or hate, or acceptance and rage.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls;
the most massive characters are seared with scars” Khalil Gibran

What are the upsides of a bad mood?

A growing body of evidence indicates that negative moods, including sadness, have a host of social and psychological benefits. Moreover, like all human emotions, these feelings are with us for an evolutionary reason, such as:

  • Sadness can improve memory
  • Sadness can lead to more accurate judgement
  • Sadness can boost motivation
  • Sadness can improve communication

Sadness can improve memory

Numerous psychological tests have found that when people are in a bad mood this can actually improve their memory. A range of studies designed ways to induce negative emotions, including showing people happy or sad films, or involving them in a study during good or bad weather, and found interesting effects. For example, in the weather-induced mood test, shoppers were randomly selected and tasked with recalling 10 unusual objects at the check-out. Those spoken to on cloudy or rainy days significantly outperformed those spoken to on sunny days on recognition memory.

Other tests have helped to show that people in a negative frame of mind are also less likely to have their memory of an event manipulated by subsequent misinformation. They also found that people who were induced to feel happy made more mistakes and were more likely to take on misleading information. As such, happiness appears to reduce people’s attentiveness when processing new information, and even when reflecting on memories of the past, whilst even mild bad moods promote a more detailed style of thinking.

Sadness can lead to more accurate judgements

As already mentioned, Freud noted long ago that those suffering feelings of sadness were more adept in spotting the truth of situations, particularly in relation to themselves. However, subsequent studies by cognitive behavioural therapists have also found that the increased self-awareness linked with sadness is also extendable to being better able to read others. A particularly interesting finding showed people were less likely to make social misjudgements about people due to biases as well as being less gullible and more able to notice deception.

A common bias sad moods have been shown to defend against is known as ‘the halo effect’, whereby people assume certain positive features of a person, such as being handsome, mean they are more likely to have other positive features. Indeed, sad judges were found to form more accurate impressions than happy ones. Those in melancholic moments can also be better at giving people time before they form an opinion about them and are less controlled by first impressions in their judgements.     

Sadness can boost motivation

Whilst intense sadness or depression is often a serious and debilitating mode of being and would often have deleterious effects on motivation, milder negative moods can, perhaps surprisingly, have the opposite effect. As outlined above, our emotions have evolutionary purposes, and short-term bad moods can serve as a useful adaptive mechanism by setting-off an internal warning system, provoking us to make changes to deal with challenges we are facing.  

A study from the University of New South Wales also found that negative emotions like fear, anger, and disgust can be beneficial as they make us take notice of problematic situations and find appropriate solutions. The same study found happy people to be less likely to invest the effort required to overcome more difficult tasks, as they have less incentive to change their mood, whereas those feeling low could see why it was worth persevering with a demanding task.

Sadness can improve communication

Whilst happiness is no doubt a key component of positive communication and engagement with others it’s also important to remember that we are best able to respond appropriately to the needs of ourselves and others when we experience the full range of our emotions. Only by noticing the contrasts between our own emotions do we reveal our vulnerabilities. Thus, by learning to be able to recognise sadness, relax with it even in its discomfort, and not seeking to convert it into something it is not, we can motivate ourselves to take beneficial actions for ourselves and others. Indeed, sadness has also been linked with increased empathy, compassion, and moral sensibility.

Another interesting feature of sadness or bad moods is that people experiencing them can often be more persuasive. Since people feeling sad have been shown to have a more focused and attentive thinking process in difficult situations, it is perhaps not surprising that they are more inclined to come up with more concrete arguments to defend their position, thus enabling them to better convince others of their position.

Conclusion

Throughout history, sadness and bad moods have been valued for being a normal part of being human and an inevitability of life that helps us deal with the challenges we face in the course of our lives. However, in recent years, chasing happiness and setting unattainable goals of near permanent states of bliss seems to have been causing widespread dissatisfaction and perhaps even contributed to the expansion of depression. Only by learning to understand all of our emotions and not immediately push sadness away can we learn a lot about ourselves and others. As one writer on the topic of depression noted that whilst he hated his depressive feelings when feeling depressed:

“…I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living. I cannot find it in me to regret the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?” Andrew Solomon – The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression

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