The 12 Virtues of Sadness: Unexpected Pathways to Happiness

Sadness may not only be normal, but paradoxically can help us to flourish.

Posted Feb 29, 2016

Tim Lomas
Source: Tim Lomas

It was lovely to hear that Inside Out had won the 2016 Oscar for best animated film, though I doubt that anyone was the slightest bit surprised. It has enchanted and captivated audiences the world over, and has immediately been hailed as a modern classic. Among the many wonderful aspects of the film, what particularly stood out was the perceptive and unusual way in which it dealt with sadness. In this day and age, there is a tendency for sadness to be somewhat maligned. At best, it is often viewed as an unfortunate burden which we would rather be without. At worst, it is seen as something aberrant, a psychological disorder even. It is true that sadness to an extent overlaps with depression; indeed, some influential theorists regard depression as a form of ‘pathological’ sadness, as captured by Lewis Wolpert in his book Malignant Sadness. However, unless sadness crosses this line – becoming sufficiently intense and/or prolonged as to be regarded as constituting a disorder – it is not the same as depression.

Yet, as Anthony Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield argue in The Loss of Sadness, we are in danger of doing exactly that. Sadness is frequently presented as wrong, pathological even, as if a kind of ‘mild’ depression. This means we are at risk of losing sight of sadness as an inherent aspect of the human condition, an emotion which may be completely appropriate in certain circumstances (e.g., in response to loss). However, not only is sadness arguably natural and ‘normal,’ we might go even further. The uplifting message from Inside Out is that sadness may actually be very useful and valuable. This is the general premise of ‘second wave’ positive psychology, which explores the way in which emotions that ostensibly appear to be negative may, ultimately, be conducive to wellbeing. Indeed, combing through the psychological literature, it is possible to identify twelve different ways in which sadness might, paradoxically, contribute towards our happiness and help us to flourish.

1. Sadness as a warning

The first four ‘virtues’ of sadness relate to its potential role in protecting us. Theories in this area tend to take an evolutionary perspective, suggesting that the ‘symptoms’ of sadness, such as loss of energy, are precisely the factors that can render it adaptive (albeit something that can become dysfunctional, in the case of depression). One way this usefulness manifests is as a warning about circumstances that may be evolutionarily costly or noxious in some way. For instance, in Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman’s ‘reunion’ model of loss, the distress that one feels when separated from loved ones is like ‘social pain.’ Just as physical pain serves to deter people from engaging with harmful stimuli, so might sadness function as a psychological ‘punishment’ for estrangement, thus motivating people to seek a reunion (where such a reunion is possible, of course).

2. Sadness as disengagement

Tragically, in some cases of sadness, the reunion we seek may no longer be possible, such as if the person we yearn for is no longer in our lives. In such an event, the second ‘protective’ function of sadness may be to encourage us to cease pursuing dreams and hopes that may be out of reach. This idea was initially mooted in Eric Klinger’s incentive-disengagement theory, which regarded dysphoria as a ‘normal, adaptive part of disengaging oneself’ from an incentive or goal that one has perceived as unattainable. Similarly, Randolph Nesse argues that dysphoric moods, while subjectively unpleasant, can help regulate ‘patterns of investment’ by discouraging us from striving for longed-for outcomes that may be ever out of reach.

3. Sadness as conservation

By restricting our sphere of engagement, sadness may also help conserve our resources when we are vulnerable. There is an interesting parallel here with Barbara Fredrickson’s ‘broaden-and-build’ theory of positive emotions; in her model, positive affect is regarded as broadening our experiential and perceptual horizons, thus enabling us to build capacities and resources. Conversely then, negative affect might help ‘narrow-and-defend’ us during times of vulnerability. For instance, Bernard Thierry and colleagues argued that low mood may function as a form of ‘hibernation,’ a ‘searching-waiting strategy’ in which resources are preserved while more optimal opportunities for engagement in the world become apparent. There is of course a risk of longer term depressive issues if such withdrawals are prolonged. However, the kind of milder, time-limited withdrawal offered by sadness may serve a useful restorative function.

4. Sadness as accuracy

One final protective function of sadness may be to enhance our perceptual and evaluative accuracy, engendering a degree of clarity and sober realism that might be relatively lacking in more positive moods. For instance, using mood induction protocols, Joseph Forgas and colleagues found that sad moods were associated with enhanced memory performance. Similarly, sadness can also improve the quality and accuracy of our judgement. In a separate study, Forgas (with Rebekah East) found that induced sadness was associated with increased scepticism, leading to a greater ability to detect deception. Thus, sadness may help protect us by enabling us to navigate our social world with greater accuracy and better (e.g., more perceptive and realistic) judgment.

5. Sadness as caring

Four further ways in which sadness may be connected to flourishing is through its intimate links with caring and love. Such links are of course implicit in the theories of protection above. However, other perspectives frame the link rather more positively: rather than positioning sadness as a response to a loss of love, it is seen instead as an expression of love. For instance, Kara Thieleman and Joanne Cacciatore suggest that grief can serve as a ‘way to maintain a connection’ to a departed loved one. Seen from this stance, sadness and joy are both manifestations of love, and indeed two sides of the same coin: love in the presence of its ‘target’ manifests as joy, and in its absence manifests as sadness. This kind of kind of dialectical appreciation is actually encoded linguistically in some cultures; for instance, the Ifaluk tribe use the same word – fago – to encompass love, sadness and compassion, thus encapsulating the precious fragility of love.

6. Sadness as longing

One particular way in which sadness materialises as an expression of love is the form of longing. In this complex state, feelings of sorrow at being separated from loved ones or places are intermingled with an almost tantalisingly pleasant yearning to be reunited. Indeed, for all that longing encompasses sadness, it is highly valued in many cultures. Recently I undertook a project to collect ‘untranslatable’ words relating to wellbeing from across the world’s languages. I found many such words pertaining to longing, including saudade in Portuguese, toska in Russian, hiraeth in Welsh, and sehnsucht in German. For instance, Brian Feldman describes saudade lovingly as ‘an emotional state suffused with a melancholic sweetness that fills the souls with longing, desire and memory.’ As this illustrates, such states are held in high regard, including as a sign of a refined sensibility, and thus are not only valued but even sought and cultivated.

7. Sadness as compassion

Sadness may also be a manifestation of love through its connection to compassion. In compassion, we may be moved to sadness by the suffering of another person, and thus be compelled to help alleviate their distress. This dynamic not only highlights sadness as a form of care, but further serves to re-enforce it as something of value. For instance, many religious traditions not only valorise compassion, but hold it among the highest qualities a person can aspire to. In Christianity, for instance, St. Thomas Aquinas presents compassion – often used interchangeably with its synonym mercy – as the ‘interior effect’ of selfless love, and writes that it ‘takes precedence of other virtues.’ Similarly, Buddhism has frequently been described as a ‘religion of compassion.’  In this context, sadness arising as compassion could be regarded as a sign of moral sensitivity, a point that will be returned to below.

8. Sadness as eliciting care

The counterpart to sadness being a compassionate response to suffering is that one’s own sadness can in turn elicit compassion from others. For instance, Ronald Barr’s ‘caregiving model’ of sadness holds that it serves a number of important interpersonal functions, not least prompting loved ones to respond to our needs and/or to return to us. Such care-eliciting is particularly prominent in childhood, where sadness – and other expressions of distress, like crying – play key roles in regulating adult attention. Sadness may likewise elicit other prosocial responses; for example, Marwan Sinaceur and colleagues report that in negotiation scenarios, participants concede more to someone expressing sadness (compared to other emotions, like anger), since it evokes participants’ other-focused empathic concern.

9. Sadness as a moral sensibility

The final four themes go beyond simply viewing sadness as valuable, elevating it as being a vital component of flourishing, integral to a full and fulfilling life. First, sadness may be indicative of a moral sensibility, particularly in relation to compassion, as noted above. People who have attained high levels of psychological functioning – such as those deemed to have reached ‘self-actualisation,’ according to Maslow’s terminology – are frequently defined in part by high levels of compassion. Integral to their compassion is sadness at the ubiquity of suffering. For instance, Joshua Shenk argues that Abraham Lincoln was driven by a sense of sorrow at the troubles of the world, and that this fuelled his personal sense of meaning and mission.

10. Sadness as engendering psychological development

Connected to the notion that sadness can be indicative of moral sensitivity, and thus of high levels of psychological functioning, is the idea that it can engender psychological development. In Buddhism, for instance, compassion is not simply regarded as a fixed trait, but as a quality that can be cultivated through practices like loving-kindness meditation. In doing so, people are regarded as developing psychologically and spiritually: concern for others helps people to ‘transcend’ their ‘ego’ (i.e., cease to be pre-occupied with their narrow self-identity), thus lessening their egoistic self-concern (which is regarded in Buddhism as the origin of suffering). Away from compassion, sadness can promote psychological growth in other ways. For instance, Colleen Saffrey and colleagues found that regret is often valued by people (over other negative emotions) as a beneficial learning opportunity.

11. Sadness as an aesthetic sensibility

Sadness has also been explored as a form of aesthetic sensitivity and refinement. This notion has a long and distinguished pedigree, particularly in relation to Romantic art and philosophy, as exemplified by poets like John Keats. Indeed, this melancholy aesthetic has proved to be culturally powerful. For instance, in Japan, Robert Woolfolk suggests it has come to be revered as indicative of a refined soul, with the sensitivity to be ‘touched or moved by the world… inextricably intertwined with a capacity to experience the sadness and pathos that emanates from the transitory nature of things.’ Empirical attention has also been drawn to the popularity of melancholic music. For instance, investigating the phenomenon of the ‘chills’ – shivers down the spine produced by endorphin bursts combined with a galvanic skin response – Eugen Wassiliwizky and colleagues found that this arose from being ‘moved,’ a complex emotional state in which sadness is almost experienced as being pleasurable.

12. Sadness as integral to fulfilment

The notion that people might actually seek out states of sadness (e.g., ‘being moved’ through art) leads to our final theme, the possibility that sadness may be a vital and intrinsic part of a fulfilling life. Flourishing might not mean just having only positive emotions, but rather experiencing a whole spectrum of human feelings. It has been argued that one may not have lived fully unless and until one has experienced both the highs and lows of life. Indeed, from a dialectical perspective, it is only by experiencing lows that highs have any substance and meaning, just as we can only know light by contrasting it with darkness. In this respect, flourishing might be a ‘meta-emotion.’ As Eva Koopman elucidates, even if one’s primary emotion is negative (e.g., sadness), it is possible to have positive meta-emotions regarding it (e.g., appreciation). This is the type of process that may be occurring when we are greatly moved by a piece of art, or by experiences like acts of remembrance. At such times, far from being undesirable, let alone a disorder, sadness may be an entirely appropriate, valuable, and indeed important part of being human.

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