It’s natural to want to feel happy, but did you know embracing sadness can also be important for our emotional wellbeing?
The pursuit of happiness is understandable. Happiness feels good, it indicates that things are probably going quite well and that we are evaluating ourselves and our lives positively. It is a pleasant emotion and typically indicates that things are ‘good’. However, a single-minded pursuit of happiness could actually be making us less happy.
Sadness is not necessarily bad or wrong and doesn’t always need to be avoided or dispelled. The idea that our ‘negative’ emotions are inherently bad can lead to self-evaluations that we are defective or inadequate, and shame that we feel that way. So why is sadness as an emotion so important and what are the benefits we should find comfort in?
In this article
The difference between sadness and depression
Sadness is a natural, adaptive, and temporary emotional response to loss or disappointment. 1 Depression is an ongoing maladaptive condition that impairs all aspects of our lives. Put simply, depression is more than just a low mood – it's a serious condition that affects our physical and mental health.2
While we all may feel sad, low, or lack energy from time to time, people experiencing depression have these feelings for long periods of time and feel them more intensely.3
According to Joseph Forgas, psychologist and professor at the University of New South Wales, 4 mild sadness can function like an alarm signal. "It alerts us subconsciously to pay a little bit more attention to what goes on around us. To be a little bit more focused, and to be a little bit more attentive"
“Negative affective states, including sadness, often also have a useful function, in triggering a more attentive processing strategy and increasing attention to the outside world.” Forgas adds.
It is helpful to understand that sadness has a useful role in our lives and that feelings of sadness from time to time can be beneficial.
Some potential benefits of sadness
Sadness can be a signal that alerts us when things are not quite right
Sadness may indicate that something in our lives is less than optimal. Perhaps someone we’ve let go of is more important than we had acknowledged, or our new job isn’t what we hoped for.Maybe our values are being compromised somewhere and it’s worth investigating before it leads to major problems. Sadness can show us what’s not quite right.5
Sadness can motivate us
Once we realise what isn’t quite right in our lives, sadness, as an emotional state that isn’t comfortable to be in, can motivate us to make changes 5 to bring us into line with our needs and values.
Sadness might make you a more attentive person
Some research has suggested that people experiencing sadness are more generous, compassionate, and concerned with fairness 7 than people who are in a happier mood.
Sadness helps us value happiness
Valuing the happiness in our lives tends to come when we actively feel our emotions. Through feeling, we can care more, love more, want more, thrive more, and aspire more. This is where sadness adds a dimension of meaning to our experiences - the fuller we live our lives, the happier we are, and yet, the more poignant sadness we feel.
How to befriend and manage sadness
When sadness arises, we can try to acknowledge and move through it without drowning in it. While it’s important to allow ourselves to feel sadness, it should move through us like a wave, reaching a peak and then subsiding.4 Of course, the sadness may not be gone forever but we can learn to feel it when it comes on, move through it, and then continue on with our lives feeling more balanced.4
When to seek support
It may be time to seek help if your sadness has begun to feel all-consuming, has been persistent for more than two weeks, or if you’re noticing any of the following:
- Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
- Persistent thoughts about self-harm or death
- Self-medication with alcohol or drugs
- Irritability, fatigue, or increased incidences of illness
- Loss of enthusiasm or interest in things you used to enjoy
- Detrimental effects on your life, work, and relationships
If you might be experiencing depression, it’s important to know you are not alone and that support is available. Speaking to your GP is a good place to start.
Free support services
There are also some great free services available through mental health organisations such as:
For a full list of services recommended by the government, check out the Head to Health service providers page.
If you or someone you know is struggling, you’re not alone and there are several places you can turn to for help.
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This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.