Sadness is not usually valued in our current culture. Self-help books promote the benefits of positive thinking, positive attitude, and positive behaviors, labeling sadness as a “problem emotion” that needs to be kept at bay or eliminated.
Evolution must have had something else in mind, though, or sadness wouldn’t still be with us. Being sad from time to time serves some kind of purpose in helping our species to survive. Yet, while other so-called “negative emotions,” like fear, anger, and disgust, seem clearly adaptive—preparing our species for flight, fight, or avoidance, respectively—the evolutionary benefits of sadness have been harder to understand…until recently, that is.
With the advent of fMRI imaging and the proliferation of brain research, scientists have begun to find out more about how sadness works in the brain and influences our thoughts and behavior. Though happiness is still desirable in many situations, there are others in which a mild sad mood confers important advantages.
Findings from my own research suggest that sadness can help people improve attention to external details, reduce judgmental bias, increase perseverance, and promote generosity. All of these findings build a case that sadness has some adaptive functions, and so should be accepted as an important component of our emotional repertoire.
Here are some of the ways sadness can be a beneficial emotion:
1) It can improve your memory. On rainy, unpleasant days that produce a blue mood, people have a much better recollection of details of objects. On bright, sunny days when people feel happy, their memory is far less accurate. It seems positive mood impairs, and negative mood improves attention and memory for incidental details in our environment.
2) It improves your judgment. People are more likely to make social misjudgments due to biases when they’re happy. But sad moods reduce common judgmental biases, such as attributing intentionality to others’ behavior while ignoring situational factors, and assuming that a person having some positive feature—such as a handsome face—is likely to have others, such as kindness or intelligence.
3) It’s motivating. 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. In other words, a sad mood can increase and happy mood can reduce perseverance with difficult tasks.
Sadness operates like a mild alarm signal, triggering more effort and motivation to deal with a challenge.
4) It might improve your interactions. Sad people are more focused on external cues and don’t rely solely on their first impressions to formulate the most appropriate communication strategy in uncertain social circumstances. Happy people, on the other hand, are more inclined to trust their first impressions.
5) It can make you nicer. People in sad moods are more concerned with fairness, and after taking longer to decide, give significantly more to others than do happy people. This suggests that they pay greater attention to the needs of others and are more attentive and thoughtful in making their decisions.
Mindfulness Practice: Scan Your Body for Sadness
There is a bit of a cliché that “If you feel it, you can heal it.” Thoughts are fast moving, elusive, and hard to pin down. Sensations, though, are different. They are ponderous and slow moving, which means we can target them with our attention and tend to them with kindness and compassion. Locating the arising of sadness in the body (it is different in everyone) gives us a kind of steady place to direct our kind attention and begin to alter our relationship with sadness. Follow this sequence.
Locating the arising of sadness in the body (it is different in everyone) gives us a kind of steady place to direct our kind attention and begin to alter our relationship with sadness.
1) Ask yourself: How does sadness actually feel in my body? This makes it less of an abstract concept or purely mental event and more of an all-body-and-mind experience.
2) See if you can locate a place where sadness is most noticeable. Take your time with it. It might be in your head or face or in your heart; maybe it feels like a weight on your shoulders, or an ache in your belly.
3) Try mentally “breathing” into that location (visualizing that you are ventilating it with fresh air), touch it warmly with your hand, or simply incline your attention toward it like you would incline toward a sleeping infant.
4) Let go of the need to make the feeling go away. Let it be there moment by moment and allow it to do what it does. Perhaps it is simply saying, in its own way, “This moment is not what you wanted, but it’s the only one you’ve got.”