It is taboo in our culture. We avoid it whenever possible.
That sinking feeling of sadness: we medicate, distract, and busy ourselves so that we don’t have to deal with it.
As one self-help guru put it, “Even a brief exposure to negativity is like being drenched in an acid bath.”
Ironically, the self-help guru quoted here was Lynne Rosen who committed suicide with her partner John Littig in 2013. Together, Rosen and Littig hosted a motivational radio show called “The Pursuit of Happiness” where they wanted to encourage people with the power of positive thinking.
The problem is that happiness is not an isolated phenomenon. It depends on context, on experience, and in many ways, on sadness.
As one psychologist put it, unhappy people need to be able to acknowledge their feelings of negativity before they can change for the better.
Sadness and its more damaging cousin depression are serious conditions that should not be taken lightly. Depression is the fourth leading cause of disability and premature death in the world, and nearly one out of every 10 Canadians will experience a major bout of depression in their lifetime.
Sadness is not fun, to be sure, but it is also not something to be avoided at all costs. Research actually tells us there are tangible benefits to sadness. Here are only a few:
1) Better decision making skills
We tend to think that feeling sad makes us lethargic and uninterested in things outside of our own wallowing self-pity, but interestingly, this is not actually the case. When we are happy, psychologists say we tend to turn a blind eye to reality.
But when we are sad, we actually focus our attention on our external environment more intently because we are more willing to turn away from ourselves. On top of that, this focus can help us to break down our complex problems into more manageable parts, enabling us to better analyze and evaluate our problems. This is also why sad people tend to be more skeptical of myths and rumours.
2) Greater creativity
What comes first, the chicken or the egg, sadness or creativity? We have long known that creative people are prone to suffer from sadness or depression (think van Gogh or Mark Rothko or David Foster Wallace), but whether one leads to the other is a still a mystery.
Are people creative because they are sad or are they sad because they are creative? One of the most important qualities in the creative process is the ability to focus and persevere in tasks that we would otherwise abandon, but as one researcher noted, “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from suffering. If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”
Another psychiatrist found that successful writers and artists were eight times more likely to suffer from major depressive illness than the general population. This does not prove that sadness initiates creativity, but most believe that it does, at the very least, foster it.
3) Motivation to change
Sadness or depression can be a debilitating thing, not desirable for anyone. But the fact that it is such a common phenomenon makes people wonder whether it fills a very important function, primarily that of helping us learn from our mistakes.
Sadness compels us to reconsider or “ruminate” on our lives. We are forced to evaluate our current state and ask whether our life trajectory needs to change. As one psychiatrist said, “I think one of the functions of intense negative emotions is to stop our normal functioning — to make us focus on something else for a while.”
Flickr photo (cc) by Lulu the Bold