We are an odd lot. On one hand, we shun sadness and any negative emotion to the point of opioid and other addictions become national health crises, yet we stigmatize the brain or mood disorders that require medical attention and compassion, like clinical depression and bipolar disorders*, which are now also national health crises. Let’s recalibrate.
Sadness and emotions associated with negativity are an accepted part of life within multiple religions, spiritual traditions and the arts with rituals, performances, and outlets dedicated to dealing with them. The daily strifes and the trials by fire of the soul are at the center of the spiritual path so we can be open to grace, love, and build our inner strength as we go through life’s challenges. Now, the benefits of sadness, or the positioning of negative moods as a positive force, are now also proven in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology as being integral to how we socialize and are advantageous for brain health.
In modern life, we’ve all been pummeled with the impossible and irrational belief that happiness is some kind of success factor of life, or that happiness is some goal to be attained.
Joy is one thing. Joy is a mood, and like all moods, it comes and goes, whereas happiness is a state of mind free of all worry, anxiety, and other moods associated with “negativity.” How to achieve it and stay in it has given rise to a whole field of research, businesses, self-help organizations and leaders, and methodologies ranging from “positive thinking” to “visual imaging.” Some of it is backed by neuroscience and replicated studies; many are just a buffet of placebos to be chosen from as per what works best for you.
This isn’t just psychologically damaging but opens us up for exploitation. In his impeccably researched book, “The Happiness Industry,” William Davies traces the history of how our happiness and moods to today’s tech and knowledge base where everything from our sleeping habits and well-being are all tracked then either told its’s wrong as marketing pitches for pharmaceuticals or commoditized, with this data either sold or developed into ever more sophisticated ad campaigns.
“Mad Men” shows this American rise of happiness as an industry we all partake in through the story of an advertising genius, Don Draper, as he peddles happiness and dreams and manufactured emotions. His own life is a mess and after all he has been through—masking pain with alcohol and women—he finds happiness at the end in his profession, doing what he does best: selling. He delivers his masterpiece, the ultimate happiness advertising, the iconic Coke ad.
Davies’ main criticism of the “the science of well-being” is that this happiness industry:
…encourages us to blame ourselves while ignoring political and economic contexts and while those in power exploit the science for “private profit” or “social control…” Rather than allow our emotions to be bought and sold, we must stop focusing on our inner lives and look “outwards upon the world”.
This focus on happiness is recent in human history. Our ancestors were focused on and embraced misery, aware that not only is sadness a necessary part of life, but suffering goes hand-in-hand with living. No one can be immune from grief, loss, betrayal, anxiety, fears, broken hearts. Buddha sought refuge only to find there is no escape, giving rise to the whole philosophy and religious set of principles of Buddhism.
The Greeks also had a philosophy. They took on the challenge of dealing with these more unpleasant emotions wholeheartedly with gusto and sophistication, basing an entire philosophy on the theatre with tragedies written and performed about our mortal lot in life. These were meant to evoke catharsis in the audience so communities were better able to emotionally and psychologically handle suffering through this fictitious representation. Aristotle was the first person to mention catharsis in his seminal work on Greek theatre, Poetics.
Entertainment, despite its name, still serves that purpose as does all facets of artistic work in every culture from Shakespeare to Ibsen and Chekov down to our collective cries over “This is Us” and “Game of Thrones.”
Sometimes a distraction is good and many times, a catharsis, a deep dive into sad songs or powerful dramas are even better. They allow you to see put your tragedy and emotions into perspective, which is why the classic tragedies are so tragic, or to process your own emotions in the safe space of fiction or distanced reality.
The Greeks and other ancient cultures were onto something this is now supported by neuroscience. Through fMRI imaging and increased brain research, sadness has several advantages. Sadness makes us more social animals in fact, even if we take a few mental health days away. It allows others to reach out to us and amplifies our own sense of empathy. It is a societal building block to ensure communities bond.
- Negative moods make you more detail-oriented and attentive. This results in:
- Better memory: negative mood reduces the likelihood that later false information will distort the original memory. So sadness improves attention to detail resulting in better memory.
- More accurate judgments: negative moods increase our natural tendency to judge people on societal and personal biases and shortcuts.
- Increased motivation
- Better communication
- Increased sense of fairness towards others
in addition, moods aren’t binary. The ability for multiple emotions to co-exist is natural and necessary for creativity and maturation. The ability to name these nuances internal experiences is essential to navigate our emotions. The English language relatively is poor in its abundance of expressing the many nuances of emotions. Melancholy, for example, is a coveted emotion for artists and scientists alike. One can mourn a relationship, be saddened by happier years gone by, and yet be content in moving on. It is a marker of healing.
This isn’t to advocate not finding a release, outlet, or to remain passive. Prolonged focus on one set of negative thoughts alters neural wirings and resets where our baseline is. The above benefits can be reaped only with active observation and allowance of sadness to process what caused it.
The Greeks were not only sound as per science in their approach to suffering but hint at the spiritual traditions which celebrate sadness. Catharsis comes from the Greek word katharos which means pure. Katharos evolved into kathairein which meant cleanse. Catharsis has come to mean to cleanse or purge one’s soul through self-realization.
Sadness, grief, loss, longing all separate you from yourself, that is why there is such desperation, an urge for connection. You have become disconnected from others and even yourself. To reconnect is the journey that can all open you up to a more joyous life, one in which each time to disconnect and find your way back, you gain a deeper sense of true happiness and a more holistic understanding of yourself and your perspectives on situations and relationships.
But how to do this? How to be able to sit in the midst of pain? How not to wallow? Dr. Tara Brach says her two most asked questions are: How do I find refuge in the midst? What can help me move through the pain of separation?
Dr. Brach, a renowned psychiatrist, mindfulness teacher and a Buddhist practitioner of over 30 years, lists a full set of resources — meditations and talks that blend in mindfulness and psychology as to how to transform these negative moods into deepening your understanding of yourself and life.
The messages of the past are correct: life is hard, suffering is natural, and emotions are ever-changing. Their approach was also correct: find catharsis and an outlet.
The most important to tenet to remember: this too shall pass.
Find and nurture (that part is on you) your tribe or a support group because sometimes we need life jackets when we feel like we’re drowning.Be that life jacket for others.
Work daily on the tools whether it be a mindfulness practice or meditation and pranayama (I highly recommend any practice which gets you to pay attention to your breath), prayer, or physical disciplines. This daily work may seem unnecessary or forgotten when you’re happy, but it’s critical so that when the time comes, you can weather the rainfall and the tsunamis of sadness in the turbulent waters of life. When it passes, a greater connection to others, to yourself, and to life await.
*This post is not intended for disorders, simply the sadness, bad moods, fears, and anxieties of everyday life.