Are there sadness benefits?
It often seems as though the work I am supposed to do is to eliminate all negative emotion on behalf of the people who come to me for psychiatric help. But is that possible, and if it were possible would it be a good thing to do? Are there sadness benefits that would be lost if we tried to create the life of perfect happiness imagined in Voltaire’s book Candide?
He begins by noting that he is not talking about serious depression, the kind of all-consuming mood of despair that eliminates all hope.
Then he talks about the importance of human emotion in general in our lives.
“Psychologists who study how our feelings and behaviours have evolved over time maintain all our affective states (such as moods and emotions) have a useful role: they alert us to states of the world we need to respond to.
In fact, the range of human emotions includes many more negative than positive feelings. Negative emotions such as fear, anger, shame or disgust are helpful because they help us recognise, avoid and overcome threatening or dangerous situations.”
He suggests a few sadness benefits.
- It can increase intimacy and human connection. When we feel sad and show sadness it often serves as a signal to those who care about us to draw closer and to be comforting. Equally, the experience of mild sadness enhances our capacity to be attuned to the emotions of others.
- The emotion of sadness has inspired many creative works.
“Sadness can also enhance empathy, compassion, connectedness and moral and aesthetic sensibility. And sadness has long been a trigger for artistic creativity… In fact, many of the greatest achievements of the human spirit deal with evoking, rehearsing and even cultivating negative feelings. Greek tragedies exposed and trained audiences to accept and deal with inevitable misfortune as a normal part of human life. Shakespeare’s tragedies are classics because they echo this theme. And the works of many great artists such as Beethoven and Chopin in music, or Chekhov and Ibsen in literature explore the landscape of sadness, a theme long recognised as instructive and valuable.”
- It improves our ability to see the world as it is, and to remember events. Psychologists have long known that people in a “normal” mood are less accurate in interpreting situations than people experiencing mild sadness. Positive emotions make us biased towards slightly unrealistic positive interpretations of events. Dr. Forgas summarizes some of this literature, ” For instance, slightly sad judges formed more accurate and reliable impressions about others because they processed details more effectively. We found that bad moods also reduced gullibility and increased scepticism when evaluating urban myths and rumours, and even improved people’s ability to more accurately detect deception. People in a mild bad mood are also less likely to rely on simplistic stereotypes.”
- It can serve as a powerful motivation for positive change. Sadness draws our attention to things that need to change in our lives. Emma Gut eloquently wrote about this role for both sadness and mild depression in her book and in an article on productive and unproductive depression. Productive depression is a state that motivates change, that calls attention to a situation that needed to be righted or improved.
Other benefits that he describes include the fact that sadness results in:
- “with better communication The more attentive and detailed thinking style promoted by a bad mood can also improve communication. We found people in a sad mood used more effective persuasive arguments to convince others, were better at understanding ambiguous sentences and better communicated when talking.
- increased fairness Other experiments found that a mild bad mood caused people to pay greater attention to social expectations and norms, and they treated others less selfishly and more fairly.”
For More Information
Gut, E. (1985), Productive and Unproductive Depression: Interference in the Adaptive function of the Basic Depressed Response. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 2: 95–113. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0118.1985.tb00929.x