Sadness — Huh, Yeah — What is It Good For?

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic


Is a little sadness good for you? Source: Anders Ljungberg hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Anders Ljungberg

Are you sad? Do you cry? Do you ever feel upset over the loss of a loved one, or a fight with a close friend? Well, wipe away those tears, and turn off the melancholy odes — it's time to get happy!

In this age of self-help mania, there seems to be no shortage of get-happy-now remedies — quick fixes for the blues. There's a near-trend in our midst: an intense push to run from feelings of sadness and embrace the happy side of life. But a recent article in Newsweek describes a different camp of voices that says sadness isn't all bad, and it can actually serve a healthy purpose in our lives. And it's even been the motivating force behind some of the world's greatest literary, musical and artistic masterpieces. We're not talking about clinical depression, or chronic sadness. We're talking about the occasional glumness we feel in response to life's traumatic events.

Have you ever felt pressure to "get happy" when you were feeling sad? How did you deal with it? And what value do you see in the occasional experience of sadness?



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I agree with your guest that antidepressants are being overprescribed, but I hope that he doesn't think that a person on medication doesn't experience sadness at all. It brings it back to a normal level so that we can appreciate the good things in contrast to the sad times, as opposed to sadness ALL the time.

Sent by Linda Roberts | 3:20 PM | 2-14-2008

As an atheist, I am often asked how I can bear to think about death. You are helping me explain that it is only against the backdrop of death that life has its precious brilliance. I try to experience fully the bright and even the dark moments and feel one with other living creatures in doing so. And I don't know how that would be possible without death. Telling ourself stories about eternal life to protect ourselves from fear and loss reduces our capacity to live fully--at least that's how I feel about it.

Sent by anonymous | 3:26 PM | 2-14-2008

This theme was summarized a half century ago in the song "Try to Remember," from The Fantastiks. It said "Deep in December it's nice to remember, although you know the pain will follow. Deep in December it's nice to remember; Without a hurt, the heart is hollow."

Sent by Jan Grebe | 3:31 PM | 2-14-2008

I love this topic - I have been radically lamenting the current habit in our society of following the greeting:"hello" with the now obligatory & superficial "how are you", when did hello cease to be sufficient greetings - especially from a stranger in a store or any other casual transaction. Thanks for the great show

Sent by Belle Mc Entee | 3:36 PM | 2-14-2008

Several years ago I was "the happiest man on earth." People commented about how happy I was. One day on my way to work, while waiting for the green light, I realized I was happy and that I hadn't been sad in a very long, long time. Suddenly, I missed that feeling, the sad feeling I once felt... and I wondered if I was "mad" for wishing to feel sad when I was a very happy man. Noticed, now, of course, that I say, "I was happy." Now, I have a mix of both feelings.

Sent by Carlos | 3:36 PM | 2-14-2008

Humans are capable of a wide and deep spectrum of emotions, of which happiness and sadness are just two. What about feeling awkward? Or embarrassed? Frustrated? Confused?

We seem to want to categorize so many feelings into simplistic expressions of happiness or sadness. Here???s to feeling happy, sad, and everything in between and beyond.

Sent by judy b. | 3:37 PM | 2-14-2008

I just listened to the on-air segment on this topic with Eric Wilson. He said lots of things that sounded profound and declared them as fact, yet he offered nothing but selected anecdotes and his own opinion to back them up.

To paraphrase one supposedly deep insight, Wilson claimed happiness without sadness attenuates one's experiences. It seems to make sense, but how do we know it's true? Wilson backed up his claim by further claiming to know why we appreciate flowers: because they wilt. But aren't flowers left in the ground just as pretty? Are we really consciously aware of the ultimate fate of a flower whenever we look at it? Would a small child, unfamiliar with the life cycle of a flower, appreciate it any less? Wilson's explanation raises more questions than it answers.

Wilson's theories about the nature of emotion, poetic as they may be, are useless unless they're actually true. It's unfortunate that seems unconcerned with actually verifying his claims.

Sent by Anthony | 3:49 PM | 2-14-2008

As a widow who has also lost a child I encounter parents and fellow widow/widowers who find themselves shunned as if they have some contagious disease that someone will catch. Even had a Presbyterian minister tell me something similar. Yet, those who have suffered loss are often the best teachers, because one has to live life and savor each new day where one is at, to freely appreciate the range of emotions life brings us. I wish more psychiatrists would serve the patient than the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to loss and sadness. One wonders if doctors are even being taught in medical school that sadness like happiness is normal and neither one can be #1 all the time

Sent by MotherLodeBeth | 5:48 PM | 2-14-2008

heres just one tidbit from my depressing life...locked in a dark cellar at 13 for 3 days and nights, beaten, raped and tortured.

Am I not allowed to have the symptoms that go along with that?

One reason I got off antidepressants was that my emotions were non existent, I felt nothing. I'd rather ride the roller coaster of ups AND downs. One of the other reasons...those drugs really make me feel awful.

I think if I got the free all expense paid trip to the islands, like what the Big Pharma companies give to the docs for pushing more drugs, I would be happier and more so on each successive trip.

Sent by g | 11:52 PM | 2-14-2008

How do you know happiness without sadness?

Sent by Curt | 12:02 PM | 2-15-2008

hear hear to g
says it all and so concise
it is a short step from banning sadness in culture to banning anger or action that might upset the gross inequalities we are in now

Sent by lorn forrest | 12:46 PM | 2-15-2008

I know I'm late here, but I finally got a chance to listen to the tape of the show online this morning.

Am I the only one here who has ever felt pressured to feel sadness? After a late-term pregnancy loss, I found myself in a grief counseling situation in which I was being encouraged to wallow in sadness. I felt like I was being told to rip open wounds that were healing. It was a sad loss, of course; it was years ago, and it still makes me sad when I happen to think about it. But I felt that I was being encouraged to grieve in a very particular way that was not my way. A friend who had a similar experience around the same time told me "All the counselors say that people need to grieve in their own way, but they expect you to grieve their way."

Maybe the key is to strive for emotional authenticity, whatever your temperament is. But then again, isn't there also value in emotional restraint? I think the whole issue is much more complex than happiness vs. sadness, or even allowing oneself to fully feel emotions as they come.

Sent by Janet Lafler | 1:03 PM | 2-15-2008

As the widow of a gifted bi-polar musician (who died by suicide), I was disturbed to read the on-line excerpt from Wilson???s book, that the loss by suicide of great artists such as Vincent Van Gogh or Virginia Woolf is perhaps ???just part of the tragic nature of existence, that sometimes there???s a great price to be paid for great works or beauty, for truth.??? I think this was a poor way to make his point. Does he think that even people with major depressive disorders need to just ???buck up???and tolerate their misery so they can produce beauty for the rest of us? In my understanding and experience, manic-depressive artists are often unable to be artistically productive when they are severely depressed. I have never heard that artists prone to depression become unproductive or less talented when their depressive symptoms are relieved by medication. Just think what great works of art might have been produced if Woolf or Van Gogh had survived their illness with the help of medication. I felt Wilson???s ideas have some merit, but come dangerously close to stigmatizing the use of medication for the people who really need it and benefit from it. Please be responsible about what you say, Mr. Wilson. Your argument might cost some people their lives.

Sent by Susan Goehring | 1:32 PM | 2-15-2008

life is full of death. by suicide, and otherwise. life is full of tragic events. medications can help depression, etc, but sometimes even they cant. our society is leaning too much in that direction for my taste for sure..

Sent by jeanine | 3:40 PM | 2-15-2008

Thirty-plus years ago I had a baby and gave him up for adoption. It was my choice and I wasn't pressured to do it, but I still felt great sadness when I gave him away. I suspect that many would have little sympathy for my feelings, since it was a choice that I myself made. Was there something wrong with me because I grieved giving away my baby as if he had died? I don't believe so. I grieved in various ways over the years, very intensely at first, and then less as time went by, just as one does when someone they love dies. I always believed that giving him up was the right thing and the best thing, so it's not that I had regrets - I loved him and I gave him away to have a chance at a better life than I could give him myself - but I did feel sadness, nonetheless. I think I'm pretty emotionally healthy, and I have shared this with very few people, certainly not with any sort of professional.

Sent by k | 9:37 AM | 2-16-2008

The point that sadness can be good for you are well-taken and, as a freetime writer, I appreciate the value of experiencing the intensity of emotions on both extremes.

But unfortunately, as has been said, we live in a world that values the "positive, happy easygoing nature". My financial security has been precarious all my paycheck to paycheck and just a few steps away fromt he homeless shelter... as I've been passed up on promotions time and time again to young, easy-going happy-looking people who seem to take everything at ease. I approach my work with intensity and seriousness in a "never do things half-assed" way but it appears I am a disappearing and unwanteed breed.

It appears that those of my friends who are sensitive, intense people also have siliar trouble with rising the employment ladder and getting away from the "just barely making it" cycle.

Perhaps, in 2008, being, or at least appear happy is indeed a prerequisite for financial security and survival, for better or worse. to that extent, meds have their place. I don't like it, but this is simply where we are in the early 21st century.

Sent by Dave | 9:05 PM | 2-16-2008

In the book "Motivated Mind" by Dr Raj Persaud, one chapter says employers are more likely to hire extroverted happy people... even though psychologists have concluded introverts are task oriented and more likely to get the job done!

Persaud claims that employers are making a big mistake pushing away the introverts...

Sent by Tropical knut | 9:54 PM | 4-2-2008

As someone who suffers from major depression, I certainly know sadness. I do appreciate the contrarian view that we shouldn't demonize occasional sadness, that it's part of the human experience. That we are perhaps too quick to diagnose depression at times. I agree. However this whole debate of whether it's 'ok' to feel a certain way, has a patrician, 'top down' focus. In reality, except for involuntary treatment of severe cases, it's the patient that seeks help. If someone's sadness, in their own opinion, is interfering with their life and causing distress, they deserve help with it. Who are we to judge what 'amount' of sadness is OK? I am also disturbed by the constant rolling out of a link between depression and creativity. Yes, there are some prominent examples of great artists with mental illness, but millions more afflicted who fail to achieve greatness. For example Margaux Hemingway inherited all her grandfather's psychiatric problems, yet failed to leave any enduring achievments. I feel that artists like Hemingway, Van Gogh, Plath, Woolf, and others made achievements in their fields in spite of their depressions, not because of it. All their lives ended in suicide. Who knows what they could have created were they given effective treatment? The point is not that we shouldn't experience and accept sadness, but that we shouldn't lose our lives (figuratively or literally) to it.

Sent by chris l | 1:04 PM | 4-11-2008

well,the problems is that there so many levels of sadness that detecting in which level you are suffering is my case. i felt hopeless,i can achieve nothing,i lost the ability to look into the future & see myself, I Lost my confidence. myself respect.I believe that in this level sadness can't be useful or creative.

Sent by Maha | 4:22 AM | 7-27-2008