Nobody wants to feel sad. After all, positive thinking has been credited with everything from helping us live longer to winning us more gold medals. Sadness might not have quite such a clear cut role in the story of evolution as, say, fear or disgust (after all, bawling her eyes out in the face of a slavering wildcat probably wouldn’t have gotten Neanderthal woman too far), but nor is it a useless evolutionary throwback. Find out why we all need a little sadness in our lives, and how we can turn it into the foundation for future happiness…
Why have we evolved to feel sadness?
Sadness can be described as an evolutionary ‘alarm’ system. Like fear, which sparks the ‘fight or flight’ response, the emotion of sadness does not simply signal that something is ‘wrong’, but triggers the mental and physical processes which can spur change.
OK, what has it ever done for us?
A number of research studies have found that sadness (whether triggered by personal memories, films or simply a rainy day) appears to improve motivation, attention to detail and memory, resulting in greater accuracy and perseverance on demanding cognitive tasks and reduced susceptibility to bias. Why? Scientists speculate that sadness primes us to make changes to remedy the issue(s) causing our unhappiness by boosting our focus and reasoning capacities.
These effects extend to social judgements too, e.g. people in a sad mood were better able to distinguish between guilty and innocent suspects when watching videotaped testimonies than those feeling happy. In contrast, people appear to be more easily misled when feeling joyous.
In addition, those in sad moods have been found to be more persuasive, producing better and more effective arguments, and more generous, dedicating more time to decisions affecting others. Sadness may motivate us to connect with those around us, whilst helping us to communicate that we are in need of assistance. Tears, for example, seem to have evolved, at least in part, as a visible signal of distress. Watching someone cry appears to activate the areas associated with distress in our own brains, invoking empathy.
More intense episodes of sadness, of course, can cause us to retreat from social contact for a time. Experts believe that this may be due to an instinctual urge to enter a period of ‘hibernation’, from which we may emerge with an altered perspective and/or new-found motivation, having been able to work through our issues at our own pace. Crying may also play a cathartic role in this process – ’emotional’ tears seem to be chemically different to other kinds of tears, with scientists speculating that they may help to expel hormones and toxins produced as a result of stress.
How can you make sadness work for you?
1. Give yourself permission to wallow.
If you’ve suffered a major loss, such as a bereavement or relationship breakdown, remind yourself that the urge to lock yourself away and cry is not only normal, but healthy. Be patient with yourself and you could emerge stronger and, ultimately, happier than ever.
2. Take advantage of that rainy day.
Yes, you now have a legitimate excuse to save that boring admin task or daunting phone call for a rainy day. Remember, low-level sadness can not only make you more focused, accurate and motivated, but more persuasive, too.
3. Reach out.
Feeling down? Not only are you likely to be a little more understanding than usual, but more generous, too, making it the perfect time to reconnect with old friends and family.
4. Watch a weepie.
Attempting to induce sadness deliberately may sound bonkers, but we all love to sing along to a sad song, veg out in front of a weepie with a box of Kleenex or curl up with a poignant read from time to time, right? Indulge your inner Whitney before an important meeting or task and you could boost your brainpower and your networking skills (so long as you confine your Mariah moment to the privacy of your own car, of course). Prefer a sad film to a singalong? Researchers have recently discovered that watching weepie movies may boost your pain threshold.