If you ever feel sad, it might not be such a bad thing…

If you ever feel sad, it might not be such a bad thing…

via PsychologyToday by Tim Lomas

It was lovely to hear that Inside Out had won the 2016 Oscar for best animated film (link is external), 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 (link is external). 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 (link is external), 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 (link is external), 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 (link is external), 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 (link is external), 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 (link is external) 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 (link is external) 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 (link is external) 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…

…keep reading the full & original article HERE