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It’s not all bad to be sad

The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

‘Sorry, I went sad again, didn’t I?’ – Sadness.

This is a quote from the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out, which cleverly brings five key human emotions to life inside of fictitious little Riley’s head. Theoretical accuracy aside, it tells the story of Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and of course, Sadness. The catch is, while it’s not hard to see the benefits that Fear, Anger, and Disgust have when it comes to protecting little Riley from harm, none of them (least of all Joy) are quite sure why Sadness is there.

This issue has plagued psychologists for centuries, and literally spurned movements and trawls of social media enthusiasts encouraging people to avoid sadness at all costs. To the point where, like Sadness in the movie, people are expected to apologise for being sad.

But new research into the benefits of mild negative effect has recently begun to demonstrate just how helpful sadness can be.

What happens when we’re sad?

Some of the recent studies have shown that we think differently when we’re in sad moods. While not that surprising, we shouldn’t assume that thinking happy thoughts is always a good thing.

When researchers have induced people into a more positive mood, they find that they may be more likely to engage in harmful behaviour. They take more risks, they trust people too easily, and they’ve even been shown to be more selfish in social situations.

On the other hand, induction of a mildly negative mood offers particular advantages. In these experiments, people who felt a little bit down showed better recall at memory tasks, were more considerate, were more effective communicators, and were even more motivated. Negative effect is not always bad.

Consider the energy your mood consumes

When you’re happy, you’re more energetic, you’re more upbeat, but at the same time you’re operating at a higher level of efficiency than when you’re in a negative mood. And that higher level of efficiency is hard to maintain. It actually comes at the expense of other abilities, like the capacity to think clearly and execute performances without error. It’s why you see Olympic athletes practicing mindful breathing before a big event. They’re not jumping about all excited before a race, they’re trying to stay calm, focused, and in control. They’re trying to facilitate optimal performance by strategically lowering their mood. When we’re in a mildly negative mood, we can devote more cognitive capacity to performing tasks accurately.

Sure, feeling sad is not really ‘fun’, but it is appropriate under many circumstances, like as an emotional response to something happening that upsets us. I’m not suggesting that we should try to be sad, but that there are certain circumstances where mild negative moods are actually good for us. And we shouldn’t have to apologise for it.

But we don’t like being sad!

The problem is that we tend to fear sadness, because we don’t understand it. And because when we’re feeling happy, we look for other things that are consistent with our mood, and it can be uncomfortable to see others feeling sad.

But instead of feeling awkward with another person’s sadness because it doesn’t match our mood, we need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. We need to be able to talk about sadness, to understand it, and to work through it. Nobody should have to apologise for feeling sad. If anything people should have to apologise for being too happy … how selfish!

Interested in human emotions and thought processes? Check out Deakin University’s range of courses in psychology


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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

School of Psychology, Deakin University
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