An article by Dr. Heidi Lepper, Ph.D.

Sadness Serves a Purpose

An interesting paradox is that our most useful emotion is also our most painful and it is sadness. Like no other emotion, we can learn a great deal from feeling sad or blue, it arises because we are facing a difficulty, whether it be a loss (grief) or a failure of some kind. Our bodies slow down essentially to help us focus on and solve a problem in our lives. When viewed as temporary and as a positive byproduct of our long human history, we can overcome sadness in a quick and positive fashion.

Sadness Serves a Purpose

Sadness, like all negative emotions, is a feeling state that does not feel good, we seek to avoid it, we self-medicate when it overwhelms us, we try to talk those we love out of it when we see them sad. It is painful to experience and also painful to witness another experience, so being the smart creatures we are, we try to avoid it! But avoiding sadness or protecting oneself from sadness does not provide the purpose it evolved for, and that was to solve problems! Learning the purpose of sadness can go a long way to helping us lead happier, healthier lives. Again, avoidance of sadness or other negative emotions is not the way to become happier and healthier, but it is the management of these states that allows for this greater daily functioning.

Getting back to the adaptive purpose of sadness. Like all emotions, it is believed that sadness evolved because of its adaptive value, something about it served us well long ago, and we can use that knowledge now to help us cope with it in ourselves and within others.

Failure and Loss

By and large two events trigger sadness within us all: loss and failure. When we lose something or someone we love, we experience loss and this experience of loss is expressed as felt sadness. Felt sadness produces particular body responses in that instead of giving us energy, as say anger does, it takes energy away from us. Our physical movements are slowed down, our voices are quieted, our gaze is diverted from others, we may not want to be touched or we may want to curl up and just sit very still in someone's arms. The intensity of bodily changes does vary across us and does vary according to the closeness of the loss or importance of the failure. But overall the effect of felt sadness is the same across us, the adaptive purpose is the same.

Consider for a moment loss and failure. Largely when someone dies, the first question we ask is "How did he die? What happened?" and then we come together as a larger family and social unit. We reunite with people we have not seen in a long time because someone we mutually loved died. When we fail at something important to us, we ask "Why did I fail? What did I do wrong?" Both events trigger a need for an answer, we need to feel as though we can avoid the thing that killed our loved one or avoid the thing that caused our failure. So in order to find answers to these questions, our collective bodies evolved and adapted in such a way as to slow us down, temporarily, first to focus our minds so we could think about our loss or failure and what it means to us and second to display to others that we are experiencing loss or failure so that they come to us with possible answers to our questions! Despite how bad sadness feels, you have got to admit how handy this system really is!

Finding advantage in your sadness

So how can you use this to your advantage? Sadness must be viewed as a temporary and useful state. It is okay to be sad! It is there to help you learn something important, and that is to solve a problem! When you protect yourself from it, avoid it all together, put it in your pocket, or surround yourself with people trying to "cheer" you up, you just eliminated learning something useful. First, that you have the ability to make solid changes to the loss or failure that warranted the sadness and second, that you have a tool bag to go to to cope until that change takes effect. Again, sadness, like all emotions, is a temporary state, our bodies do not sustain the emotional impact for long, so use it while you have it.

As parents, we seek to protect our children from ever becoming sad, or when they are sad we say things such as "Oh, please don't be so sad!" and then we may go buy them an ice cream or try to tickle them out of their sadness. But when we parents take this approach we are denying our children the chance to learn something useful, first the solution to a problem (the thing that caused the sadness) and second a set of skills they can go to when they come to be sad again in the future. Yes, sadness hurts, but it honestly hurts a lot less when you view it in this way.

A real life, real sad learning experience

Recently one of my undergraduate students heard me talk about this and asked: "So my roommate just broke up with her boyfriend and she is devastated over it. I have been trying to cheer her up by telling her he was not worthy of her. But you are telling me that my doing this is taking away her ability to learn something about herself?" And what did I say? "Of course you are! Her sadness is there to help her solve a problem, the problem of what happened in the relationship. No failed relationship is every wholly one person's fault, she was involved in someway in the break-up. She can learn how to make effective change in herself to maximize her success in the next relationship, if and only if, she appreciates the pain of the sadness will in fact diminish in time and is there to help her become a better person. Don't protect her from this process, you are taking away her chance to solve a problem." "But how do I do that?" my student replied. "You sit with her and hold her hand, you tell her you are sorry that it hurts. And then you listen. In a while, or in a day or two, you may nudge her a bit, ask if she needs anything and tell her about this conversation we are having right now. It might actually make her smile...a good sign that her brain has already started to help her solve the problem she is facing."

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