The Benefit Of Sadness

Photo: KellyB

The other day, my almost-four-year-old son said to me, “Daddy, I’m sad.”

“Why?” I asked him.

He shrugged, unclear himself.

“Is is because it’s a school day?” I asked.

He nodded.

“You’d rather stay home and play with me and mom?”

He nodded again, vigorously.

“Maybe it’s not that you don’t want to go to school,” I said, “but that you want to stay home and play with us more.”

He nodded a third time.  “Yeah.”

“But at school you get to play with all of your friends!” I reminded him enthusiastically.  “And you’re making smoothies today!”

His face brightened.  “Oh, yeah!”  And just like that, his sadness was gone.

Would that it were as easy to banish sadness in adults.  Though the word “depression” has by and large replaced the word “sadness” for what we feel when things don’t go our way or we lose something precious to us, the two are, in fact, quite distinct.  Depression describes a specific set of symptoms that cluster together:  depressed mood, inability to feel pleasure in pleasurable activities, sleep disturbance, decreased energy, difficulty concentrating, and possibly suicidal thinking.  Sadness, on the other hand, may indicate a depressed mood, but may also be felt in a way that has little if any effect on daily function.

Sadness may, for example, be bittersweet—meaning brought on by a loss that makes us unhappy but at the same time that brings to mind memories we enjoy.  Sadness is a normal response to a wound that’s ultimately destined to heal (which, of course, is person-dependent, meaning that what becomes a non-healing wound in me might heal within a few weeks in you).  While depression has no upside of which I can think, sadness sometimes does.

Sadness can fill us with appreciation for the good we’ve lost.  It can help us treasure the good we haven’t.  It can make us more tender.  It can make us more empathetic and compassionate toward others who’ve gone through or are going through what we are.  It can connect us to others by signalling we need their support.  It can incline us to give support to others who’ve supported us.  It can fill us with appreciation for the times we don’t feel sad.

Most of us would avoid feeling sad if we could, but this would be a mistake.  Suppressing unpleasant feelings because we’re afraid of pain typically only leads to greater pain in the future, either as a result of the misguided steps we take to avoid feeling it initially (e.g., drug use), or as a result of it finally bursting forth when enough losses that haven’t been properly grieved pile up one on top of the other and can no longer be contained.  Most psychologists know of the cost of blocking out legitimate sadness rather than allowing it to be felt until it ends on its own.

Because, in my experience, it does end.  The final benefit of experiencing sadness may be that it’s cathartic.  Why, after all, do we cry?  To feel better.  When we suffer a blow in life, sadness may represent the bridge we must take to return to our baseline level of happiness.  Certainly grief and sadness can become prolonged and develop into full-blown depression, but data suggest that when most of us suffer a loss, we grieve for a while and then eventually move on.  We are all, in fact, far more resilient than we think.

I’m writing about this now because I’ve been feeling sad myself lately.  Someone I love isn’t doing so well, and there’s not much I can do about it.  Unfortunately, some things in life aren’t fixable in the way we want, and when that’s the case, though we can still change poison into medicine in some way, not being able to do it the way we want is…sad.  So, not being able to do anything else, I tolerate my sadness.  And I share it with others I love.  And it draws us together—in a good way, I find—helping us to value and appreciate one another more, teaching me that, in one sense, sadness holds the power to bring out our best.  And for that I’m thankful.  I just wish in this case it wasn’t on the back of someone else’s suffering.

Next WeekHow To Prevent Procrastination

19 comments to The Benefit Of Sadness

  • Profound and tender. Thank you.

  • Anne

    Funny you should post this today because it’s pretty much where I am. I have reconnected on a deeply personal, intense level with one of the two someones that I love above all else but it was for a not good reason. I wouldn’t trade our reconnection for anything, but I’m sorry for the circumstances that lead to it.

    It is somewhat bittersweet too and that adds another element.

    On top of these things though I have to say that the other emotion I have been experiencing lately is fear. The fear of the day when I can no longer be there for the ones I love and that fear feels like a monster that could very well overwhelm me.

    I sent this person I love today a message of love and support for him. And I promised I would always be there for him but that’s a lie. Not a malicious one for sure but a lie nonetheless. I am all too aware of the finiteness of life. I am glad these two people are in my life but lately the fear is just so strong its hard to shake.

    What I’m thinking, I know on the one hand is ridiculous for the most part so why does it bother me so much? I have this fear that when I die I will be separated from them and will miss them so much that my sadness and my depression will never leave me. I guess the only way that we’d be separated forever is if there is a hereafter and we went to different places. Religion has not been the comfort to me that it is to so many. It’s the root of most of my fear and so does not offer me any comfort.

    So I fear being separated throughout eternity from these two very special people. I’m trying to figure out if I’m sad or if I’m depressed and really I think I’m both because there is no way out, no way to avoid the frightening but unknown world that might come after my life here is done. All the other sad days or stressful times that I have experienced can’t measure up to this one. Because I always knew on some level that soon I’d be back on familiar ground with people I love. But when that day arrives that I will leave them and this world behind there will be no such comfort to hold onto.

    I remember when I was still a child that my parents were frustrated when I expressed sad thoughts like these and they told me I just thought too much.

    Is it possible to have thoughts like this that aren’t depression but are just sad? I guess it doesn’t really matter why I just feel these things that have no answer. I don’t talk about them with these people I love so much because I don’t want to give them any other reason to be sad. So it’s kind of an unsharable thing except for here I can say it and so I do and I thank you for listening.

    I hope your sadness will finally be resolved in the best way possible very soon.

    Anne: I hope yours is too.

    Alex

  • This may be one of my favorite postings you’ve done, Alex! I often feel “sad” for a couple of days, but am grateful to have never experienced true “depression.” I’ve said in the past that I love ALL of my emotions including happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. As long as you can recognize the emotion and understand its purpose, there is probably some underlying value. I’d rather feel something than nothing. I gain comfort from knowing that the positive emotions are just around the corner from the negative ones in my world. As a physician, those moments of sadness enable me to have more empathy for those patients I see with true “depression.” Thank you for yet another inspiring posting!

    Kara: Glad you liked it.

    Alex

  • Barney

    They say spot the silver lining in the cloud. You’ve managed to find a whole silver cloud. Kudos to you on that. This was a refreshing take on an all-too-familiar emotion.

  • Anne

    Thanks Alex—since neither of us appear to be reliable soothsayers or prognosticators (not sure how lucrative those professions are—and when was the last time you saw a Help Wanted Ad for either), I guess we shall have to wait for the inevitable passage of time to determine the answer or else die waiting. Not because we are waiting but an unexpected and sudden interruption of breathing?

  • My first huge bereavement was my dad (others soon followed) and I remember that, when I stopped hunching against the unimaginable howling loss but just let it whistle through me, then the sun was brighter and I could taste food again and I was aware of and grateful for the living love all around at that awful time.

    It was impossible to choose not to feel one key thing and still feel the others.

    After so many years as an RN in HIV, ER, cardiac and homecare and all the crises and end-of-life counseling that entailed, it was good to know that the advice I’d always given—your feelings are appropriate whatever they are, so you might as well recognize them; be civil but honest about your limits; let the process roll; you’ll be better after your loved one has died if you show up at the end of their life, instead of hiding from it—was actually spot on.

    My own view of spiritual life requires that love trumps all, because love is at the heart of Creation and love is the most important characteristic of the Greatest Reality. Not everyone agrees, but it’s an open question from this side, anyway.

  • Thank you.

    After more than a year of grieving for my father, I’ve begun to walk in the sunshine and look forward to spring colors in the park every morning.

  • Linda Whidby

    Hi Alex:

    “Why, after all, do we cry? To feel better.” This is a very important point. I spent about 13 years of my life on antidepressants because I began having panic attacks in my early thirties. The pills did work, but I never learned to cope with my feelings. I made the conscious decision to stop taking them about 2 years ago because I was at the brightest point in my life: wonderful husband, teaching career, beautiful home. I was not prepared for the onslaught of feelings that came up for me—mostly fear, and I had no tools, no understanding for coping. I had to leave my job for a while and rent out my house; thank God I still have my husband. My old pattern of dealing with fear was to avoid feeling it (makes sense that I developed panic attacks), but I have learned to sit with it, have a good cry, and move through it. Then I do feel better. Thank you for your post.

  • Paul

    I am reminded of a quote from Peter De Vries’ book The Blood of the Lamb inspired by the experience of losing his daughter, who died at the age of 10 of leukemia. It has sustained me in times of sadness and steels me when I reach out to others in times of their sadness. “There may be griefs beyond the reach of solace, but none worthy of the name that does not set free the springs of sympathy. Blessed are they that comfort, for they too have mourned…”

  • chris

    @Isy Aweigh:

    Such succinct wisdom!

    Thanks,

    Chris, another nurse who understands

  • chris

    Alex, all these feelings undulate, roll over us, persisting longer or releasing us sooner. The feelings have a life of their own, it seems . . .

    Sadness, to me at this time in my life, is very like resignation. And resignation is a close cousin to acceptance. And though I am not officially Buddhist, I see the wisdom of Buddhist values, such as acceptance.

    This morning, on the way out the door, I said to my son, who had some regret about something (possibly, like your son, the very necessity of going to school), “You’ll get over it.”

    You have to DECIDE, actively DECIDE, to rally . . .

  • Jesus

    Alex,

    I´ll pray for the person you love and mentioned in this interesting article.

  • I liked this post so much I wrote about it, with attribution of course, in my own blog. Thank you for making me think and feel something good today.

    Running from Hell with El: Glad it resonated with you. I liked what you wrote on you blog. Hang in there!

    Alex

  • Enjoying the Benefits of Sadness « runningfromhellwithel

    [...] felt “okay,” which is to say good, not great.  She mentioned to me that she read a blog titled “The Benefits of Sadness” and described it to me quickly, so I read [...]

  • Diana

    Very thoughtful and interesting. Thank you for the post.

  • Kathy

    This is a powerful reminder for me, as someone still recovering from feeling avoidance. I spent my life avoiding painful feelings at all costs, using many methods, only to have them erupt later in much more damaging ways. In fact, I clearly remember telling a therapist once that life would be so much better if we didn’t have to suffer through feelings. Given some years’ growth, I am finally opening to my emotions and finding that they’re not as frightening as I thought. As you said, we are all more resilient than we believed. Thank you for this insightful look into the necessity of experiencing sadness.

    ~Peace~

  • Tara

    I appreciate reading this message and the comments… having struggled for the past year with lots of depression and anxiety, I especially relate to the comment of Chris above, that you have to actively DECIDE to rally. That is the only thing that helps me overcome the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of my negative feelings. It is a constant battle but I hope some day it will get easier.

  • Thanks for this Alex, I have had proper depression and have researched and written on it, and sadness is very different.

    Today I am very sad as a neighbour and dear friend passed away at home yesterday. Far too young, his young children have lost a wonderful father. I’m so sad for him, for his wife and kids, and for this window into how this might happen to us one day.

    My young son once came back from preschool and told me: ‘It’s all right to be sad.’ His teacher had told him, and she taught us both a lovely lesson that day. It’s a phrase we often repeat.

    So we are sad, learning great lessons about life from the tragic death of a friend. I wish we weren’t.

  • I’m happy that there is someone out there with a voice that means something, that resonates within me as if I were speaking this myself. Appreciating others, giving more, and relating to one another more, accepting the things we cannot change, but yet trying one word at a time to make this world a better place to be, to live, to love, and to enjoy (ups and downs). Thank you for this post, thank you for your suicide post, just thank you and I’ll keep reading.

    Valerie: Thank you.

    Alex

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