Like most life lessons we teach our children, this one came unexpectedly, at a moment when I felt least prepared.
My son, who was four at the time, has always had a happy disposition. It’s his default emotion. On this particular day I was rushing, busily focused on chores that were unimportant.
I had gone to his room to put away clothes and found him on his bed, quiet and still, facing the wall. When I went to stroke his forehead I noticed a little tear in his eye.
“What’s up little fella?”
“I don’t know, mama. I just feel very sad and I don’t know why,” came his anguished reply.
A few more tears began to flow. I knew in this moment that I would have to choose my next words very carefully, so I paused and said, “Everything is going to be OK sweetheart. We all feel sad for no reason sometimes. When sadness comes to visit, just say ‘Hello sadness’, and before you know it, he’ll be gone again.”
Just hearing that sadness is normal lightened his load in an instant. But it’s knowledge that we, as a collective in Western culture, seem to have lost.
In our endless pursuit of happiness, we’ve forgotten that negative emotions are normal. The most unfortunate result of that is our refusal to accept sadness, which actually makes us sadder. The happiness industry is now a multi-million dollar one churning out videos, books, online tutorials and pills in endless supply.
Everywhere we turn we’re confronted with happy faces telling us that the most important goal in life is happiness. I’ve even seen bumper stickers proudly proclaiming that happiness is not just a goal, but a way of life. But of course sadness is utterly normal and unavoidable, and it turns out is also necessary and beneficial.
Joe Forgas is a Professor of Psychology at Australia’s University of New South Wales. He’s been studying negative emotions for many years and became fascinated with sadness. He wanted to find out the purpose of sadness.
What Biological Need Could Sadness Possibly Serve?
Psychologists have known for some time that other negative emotions have benefits that help us survive. Fear makes us avoid dangerous situations. Think of that chill that goes up your spine when you find yourself alone at a train station at midnight and you see a stranger approaching. Disgust also helps us avoid danger. Think of how you screw up your face when you smell food that’s turned bad. Even anger can help us overcome different problems in life, according to Professor Forgas.
“But sadness, which is the most common emotion that we all experience, was a kind of a puzzle.”
Professor Forgas and his team set out to solve the mystery. They began inducing mild negative and positive emotions in research participants and then monitoring their responses to set tasks. What they discovered was surprising.
“We didn’t really expect negative moods to provide any benefits but it turns out there is a consistent pattern. People in a mild negative affective state tend to perform better on many of those tasks.
Their memory is more accurate, their judgment seemed to be less biased, they communicate more effectively.”
So what do all these improved responses mean in terms of evolutionary psychology?
What is the Purpose of Sadness?
According to Professor Forgas, sadness acts like an antenna.
“It seems that the purpose of mild sadness is it functions like an alarm signal. It alerts us subconsciously to pay a little bit more attention to what goes on around us. To be a little bit more focused, and to be a little bit more attentive,” he says.
“When people process information in this way you can see benefits. In terms of memory, judgements, communication, and interpersonal behaviour.”
The main difference between positive and negative emotions is the internal versus the external worlds.
“Happy states are beneficial. People tend to be more creative when they are in a positive mood. They’re able to think more divergently. It’s a signal that promotes using internal, intuitive automatic thinking.”
“Negative states focus attention to the outside world and result in more accurate and concrete information processing.”
So negative emotions are not only normal and necessary but the harder we try to suppress them, the worse we feel. The harder we try to be happy, the more elusive it becomes.
“When a culture continuously tells us that only positive affective states are desirable or acceptable, then we end up more worried than we should be about normal negative states,” he says.
“By extolling happiness and denying the virtues of sadness, we set an unachievable goal for ourselves. We may also be causing more disappointment,”
“We ought to accept the entire landscape of human states as normal and even useful and beneficial.”
Our Obsession with Happiness
If sadness and other ‘negative’ emotions have positive outcomes for us, why did we become so obsessed with happiness? This hasn’t always been the case. Ancient philosophers, such as the Stoics, recognised the importance of learning to accept disappointment and loss.
Greek tragedies were written with the sole purpose of expressing and rehearsing negative states. Some of Shakespeare’s greatest works explore our darkest emotions. And when we celebrate tortured artists like Van Gogh or Beethoven or even Nick Cave, we also celebrate the deep sorrow they so beautifully express through their work.
“These negative states are very deeply part of our evolutionary heritage. We can’t help it, it’s not conscious,” explains Joe Forgas.
But happiness is a far easier concept than sadness to package, market and sell. It’s also an easier concept to co-opt in order to sell us other stuff that we don’t need.
Can you imagine a Coke ad featuring a bunch of sad-sacks sitting around feeling sorry for themselves? I don’t think so. As a result, the happiness industry is unlikely to abate in the near future. How then, should we face the gamut of emotions likely to emerge throughout any given day or even hour?
“Accept your moods. They are there for a reason. They signal states of the world you need to respond to. And most of the time they are beneficial and helpful,” says Professor Forgas.
And what should we teach our children about sadness?
Well, it seems that my instinct all those years ago when trying to comfort my young son was spot on. Not only should we teach them to acknowledge and accept negative emotions as a normal part of life, but we should also encourage children to welcome sadness with a little ‘Hello’ and before you know it, it’ll be gone.