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Alex Lickerman M.D.

The Benefit of Sadness

Why sadness isn't something we should always seek to avoid

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 surfaces 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.

Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.


About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.