The Secret Benefits of Sadness

By Renée Adams

October 23, 2020

benefits, emotions, happiness, sadness

Every day, we are told to prioritize happiness. We see it everywhere. In media, happy and sad are presented as opposites. Happiness is something to aspire to and sadness is something to avoid. But what if that wasn’t truly the case? Research actually points to many hidden benefits of sadness and using emotional intelligence (EI) we can find healthy ways to allow sadness into our lives without it overwhelming us.

A Rejected Emotion

Much of the scientific research on the benefits of sadness comes from Joseph Paul Forgas, a professor of psychology at UNSW. He argues, “Despite… unprecedented material wealth, happiness and life satisfaction in Western societies have not improved for decades.”

Western societies, in particular, have placed a disproportionate value on happiness, often referred to as a “Cult of Happiness.” Normal human emotions like temporary sadness are frequently repressed because they’re seen as slowing us down. But this unhealthy attitude can compound the issue and lead to even more emotional pain.   

This explains why we have the tendency to reject sadness instead of facing it head on, but what happens when we take on the difficult task of letting sadness in? According to Forgas, “Sadness can also enhance empathy, compassion, connectedness and moral and aesthetic sensibility. And sadness has long been a trigger for artistic creativity.”

Sadness has long been advocated for in art and philosophy. Greek tragedies, Shakespearean tragedies, and a long tradition of great art have embraced sadness as painting a complete picture of humanity. On top of this, sadness, according to author Alexandre Dumas, was a vehicle for true happiness. In The Count of Monte Christo, he wrote:

“There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness.”

The Science of Sadness

In English, we have more words for negative emotions than we do for positive ones. This makes sense because they have more functional value from a biological perspective. Negative emotions often mark our reactions to life-threatening things and death, whereas positive emotions merely enhance our well-being. Forgas says, “…mild, temporary bad moods may serve an important and useful adaptive purpose, by helping us cope with everyday challenges and difficult situations.” Sadness helps us be more attentive and ready to respond to crisis and difficult situations.

On top of that, Forgas’ research has shown tangible ways that sadness can improve the quality of our lives. An experiment testing people’s abilities while experiencing sadness found that sadness improved memory, made judgments more accurate, improved motivation, enhanced communication, and increased fairness.

Using this knowledge is not easy as the discomfort of sadness is often shied-away from. But EI and famous Buddhist master, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, has this advice on the benefits of sadness:

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”

This means allowing sadness in to our happy moments and happiness into our sad moments. When you look at a photo of your good old days, you feel nostalgia. You’re happy for the memories you made and sad that they’re in the past. This is just one healthy way to let sadness into your life, but I want to know: How do you make room for sadness?

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