Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Dealing With Sadness

Self-help tips

Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

Going through life a little sadder than average isn't necessarily a negative: It can feel calming to you and to others who could use a respite from today’s overstimulating existence. The goal is usually to avoid mild sadness descending into the pit.

Here are five experiences that would make anyone sad. After, I’ll list the embedded principles for coping.

You're not losing weight. You’re 20 pounds overweight and have been dieting for weeks, yet got on the scale today and lost just one pound. That’s happened before, so you’re feeling sad that you’re likely facing a lifetime of weighing at least what you do now.

Rather than pursue decades of likely yoyoing and the unhealthy and dispiriting sequela, you accept with some sadness that you’ll probably always be a little overweight and maybe, as a result, live a little shorter, but you use that possibility to motivate yourself to make the most of your time.

You’re aging. You look at a photo of yourself that’s just five years old and are shocked at how quickly you’ve aged. You rule out a facelift but decide it's worth coloring your hair and wearing clothes that make you look a little younger although not like a teenager. Then you use suppress-and-redirect (see below) to avoid aging being top-of-mind.

You got a bad performance review. Your boss gave you a bad review. You put it aside for a day to regain your equanimity and then pondered it to decide what, if anything, you want to try to improve.

You even contemplated looking for another job, one that better plays to your strengths and with a boss who wouldn’t be so tough on you. Of course, in the first days after you got the review, you’re sad and a little scared, but the feeling moderated until you reached stasis in your normal, just mildly sad state.

Your child is out of control. He won’t sit still in class and bothers kids outside of class. At home, his room is a tornado, and the mess extends into the kitchen and living room. He often won’t listen and throws tantrums, something you thought would fade after toddlerhood.

You’ve tried everything from “catching him being good” to strict limits, but nothing works well enough. You’re sad because you feel it has to be at least partly your fault. After all, you’re the parent.

But on reflection, you conclude that a parent can only do so much: Genes, peers, and school matter a lot. So while you continue to make efforts, the inconsistent effectiveness doesn't drive you into despondency. You accept it as one of life’s trials... well, usually you do.

You’re feeling useless. Despite an expensive college education, many people find themselves pulling a beer or barista lever. Even many people who have a professional career, by midlife see the dispiriting limitations of their influence: at work and in changing their spouse or kids. And in old age, the decline in physical and mental capability often leads to dispiritedness.

In a world of 7.8 billion people, relatively few have major influence. Even the president of the world’s only superpower has been rendered quite impotent by his opposing political party and the media. Because so few jobs, even those ostensibly in “public policy,” affect much policy let alone improve lives, the most likely way to increase agency is to act where you clearly can influence: one-on-one. Mentor someone at work, be a thoughtful, two-way communicative parent. Or volunteer for a local charity that you're confident makes a difference. Or start an ethical business that improves life. My favorite idea is what I call MentorMatch: a website that like a dating website, would match would-be mentors with protégés.

One route to elder usefulness is a bequest. Many older people with the wisdom to have pursued a lifetime of saving over materialism can wisely rather than reflexively bequeath their savings. Sure, you might do the standard thing—leave it to your kids and equally—but in your situation and in the larger scheme of things, is that wisest? Think of what each of your kids would do with the money. Think of the extent to which that would empower rather than debilitate as it does to trust fund babies and welfare recipients for whom the money is a paralytic. Might some or even most of your hard-earned savings do more good bequeathed elsewhere: to a needy person(s) you know or to a charity you believe generates much good per dollar expended, especially where your dollars would—unlike if given to a large charity—be more than a grain of sand tossed onto a beach?

You’ve just lost someone: Your partner left you, your parent died, your dog died. Those can be devastating losses, especially for a person whose baseline is less than chipper.

While thoughts and tears come, you try to move forward as soon as you can make yourself. If you lost a spouse, you start dating. If you lost a parent, you enjoy reminiscing and trying to live their legacy. If you lost your doggie, rescue another.

The principles

The following principles are embedded in those examples:

Acceptance is central. Yes, sometimes people can dramatically change themselves, but if you've long been a generally sad person, chances are you won’t turn into a Pollyanna. So it may be wise to accept yourself and to recognize that a less-than-bubbly person is often appreciated in our overstimulating world.

With regard to situational sadness, of course, do what you can to fix the problem, trying to resist the tendency to procrastinate dealing with it. As needed, get help—None of us can do everything solo.

Once you’ve done what you can, try suppress-and-redirect: Suppress the bad feeling, which atrophies the memory neurons associated with that feeling. Suppressing is easier if you redirect yourself by turning to something constructive, even if it’s just to empty the sink. Suppress-and-redirect is often quite a potent tactic.

Take doable, low-risk actions. When you’re sad, you’re unlikely to take on something big. Try something easy: call a friend, listen to pump-you-up music, volunteer, color your hair, make your favorite dish, do something at work that’s pleasurable.

Use a lightbox? Sadness can be exacerbated by lack of sunlight , which, of course, is more common in winter and in northern latitudes. A lightbox, which you place 16 to 24 inches away for 30 minutes in the early morning, can help. It’s available without a prescription, although it’s recommended that you first consult your health care provider. That’s especially important if you suffer from bipolar disorder or from eye damage, glaucoma, or cataracts.

See a pro? Sometimes, self-help isn't enough. Here's an article on choosing a therapist, counselor, or coach.

The takeaway

As with many of my articles, I offer a number of tactics, because one size doesn't fit all. For example, here's one on dealing with worry , one dealing with anger, and one offering broadly applicable tips . Is there one or more in this or those other articles that you'd like to try?

I read this aloud on YouTube.