The Case of Sadness
Marty Nemko :
Of course, no reasonable case can be made for debilitating sadness, let alone for depression. But society, which values upbeatness, deems even mild sadness to be a character defect or at least needing of repair: "What's wrong, Pat?"
Yet, a defensible case can be made for the mildly sad state of being. I hope that making that case here will promote self-acceptance among people who, because of biology and/or environment, walk the earth a little less chipper than average.
Sadness facilitates these:
Examination of life's under-examined dark side. At work, in the media, and even in personal life, the focus tends to be on life's bright side. Yet the dark side warrants significant attention because that facilitates improvement. For example, sadness about one's job or relationship is often prerequisite to doing the hard thinking about how to improve it. Sure, in theory, a person can go directly from awareness of a problem to solutions, but often, sadness is a needed intermediate step.
Motivation to act. Related to the previous advantage, mild sadness may boost one's motivation to improve themselves and perhaps others. Joseph Forgas, in U.C. Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine, explains, "Happiness signals to us that we are in a safe, familiar situation, and that little effort is needed to change anything. Sadness, on the other hand, operates like a mild alarm signal, triggering more effort and motivation to deal with a challenge." He goes beyond a priori reasoning to point to a series of his studies that found that people are more likely to persist on difficult tasks when first shown a happy movie than when shown a sad one.
Reflective moderation over hubris. The loud-and-proud crowd often goes beyond upbeat to hubristic. Wisdom more likely accrues from circumspection, the careful consideration of a wide range of input, which generally, per Aristotle, leads to moderation, the so-called golden mean.
A state of mild sadness is more conducive to that than is ebullience.
Appreciation of life's small goods. The person with an upbeat baseline needs bigger pleasures to rise further, maybe jewelry, a new car, a fancy vacation. In contrast, the mildly sad person may more likely feel better from the small, for example, a flower's beauty, the sound of music, a bon mot, a dog sidling up, the smell of freshly cut grass, the taste of ice cream.
Attention to others. Happy people tend to be bubblier, eager to talk about what they're happy about. Yes, that can rub off but it can also make conversation partners feel less than and not cared about.
The sad person may be more likely to create a safe space for others' candid sharing of feelings, thoughts, and fears, which per the above, may be prerequisite to improving their life.
Memory. Happiness may reduce focus. The aforementioned series of studies found that people remember more when sad. Forgas reports, "Research like ours consistently finds that happiness can produce less focused and attentive processing and so increases the chances of misleading information being incorporated into memory, while a negative mood improves attention to detail and results in better memory."
Again, of course, persistent, debilitating sadness, numbness, and lack of motivation requires addressing, usually with a professional's help. But mildly sad people, rather than feeling defective and needing to improve, may have reason to feel, well, happy.
(Marty Nemko, Ph.D., is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, California, and the author of 10 books).