In Defence of Sadness

Ask any of my friends – I am absurdly, wearyingly proud of my daughter Frances, and convinced that she is a once-in-a generation prodigy. My most recent boast has been about not just the range and complexity of her vocabulary, but her ability to talk about her inner world and emotions.

And – like any good coach-y Dad – I want to help her build her emotional intelligence. So, now and again throughout the day, I’ll ask, “How are you feeling?” Sometimes she will say “happy” and I will say “lovely!” Sometimes she will say “good” and I will say “good!” Sometimes she will say “sad” and I will say “why?

Slowly but surely I’ve been building for her what Russ Harris referred to as ‘The Happiness Trap’. The belief that happiness is the natural state for all human beings; that if you’re not happy something is wrong and needs to be fixed, pronto. Where does this belief come from? What’s the potential impact of trying to ‘fix’ or push away sadness as soon as it arises? Could sadness even be helpful?

Rob Archer tells a story called ‘The Bear and the Blueberry Bush’, which we borrowed for our book, ACTivate Your Life. It goes like this:

Imagine you are following a path through a forest. You have been following the path for several hours and you are not 100% sure where you are going. Already on the journey there have been some really cool, fun moments – things you’ve seen that have been weird and beautiful. But there have been some unpleasant moments too – stuff that has been scary, and at times you’ve felt completely lost. Right now you know that you are a little bit tired and very hungry…

Then you come to a fork in the path – it splits off in two directions. When you look down one path you see, bathed in sunlight, a tall, lush, wild blueberry bush. When you look down the other path you see, snarling from the shadows, an enormous, hulking, grizzly bear. Which path do you choose?

Most people, unsurprisingly, choose the blueberry bush. It’s just common sense – when it comes to human behaviour we are naturally motivated to move towards stuff that is pleasant, and to avoid stuff that is or feels threatening. And this tends to work pretty well in the external world when navigating down actual paths with bears and blueberries at the end. But what’s not so helpful is when we apply this rule too rigidly to our internal world – particularly our emotions.

The charity Mind estimates that in England 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem each year, typically anxiety, depression or a mix of the two. This in itself would seem to indicate that ‘happiness’ is by no means the natural state of being for humans. Some, however, propose that these numbers in themselves reflect that human desire to turn away from difficult experiences and emotions – that normal elements of the human experience like melancholy, grief and sadness are being pathologised and medicated.

What if sadness wasn’t a problem? What if sadness could actually be healthy, even helpful?

Professor Joseph P. Forgas of the University of South Wales has conducted research into how sadness works in the brain, and it’s potential benefits. According to Professor Forgas, sadness can improve your memory and attention to detail, it can improve our judgement of people and social situations, and even increase our motivation in some situations. We have evolved to experience this emotion – it must serve some function.

In the Pixar movie Inside Out we are taken inside the mind of our 11 year-old protagonist Riley, where the five proposed ‘basic’ emotions of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust come to life and compete to control her actions. Initially the hyperactive, manically upbeat Joy is in charge, struggling to keep the others – particularly Sadness, who she sees as an unhelpful buzkill – out of the picture. You get a sense of where this dynamic comes from early on in the film, when Riley’s mum thanks her for being so positive, and tells her that she needs to keep smiling to support them during a stressful time.

But as the film progresses, the power dynamic between the emotions starts to shift. Eventually Joy relinquishes control and allows Sadness to take charge, at least temporarily. Riley tells her parents about her fears and worries, and they share their own with her. Throughout the film, every new memory created in Riley’s mind is represented by a coloured orb – yellow for happy memories, blue for sad memories. Now a new orb emerges, a combination of yellow and blue.

It’s a beautiful moment, and my wife and I were both in tears as we watched. Because not only is sadness normal, not only could it even be helpful, sadness can be beautiful. There is a reason why we seek out sad songs, books, and movies, a reason why these are often some of the most beautiful examples of their form. A life without sadness is a life without emotional amplitude, a flat line on the electrocardiogram of existence. Perhaps Dostoyevsky put it more poetically when he said “The darker the night, the brighter the stars”.

Sadness can connect us, to ourselves and each other. Where there is sadness there is the potential for kindness. It tends to be in our saddest moments that we find a capacity for self-compassion that often eludes many of us. It is in witnessing the sadness of others (in real life or in art), that we learn to empathise.

There is an astonishing (to me) video on YouTube of a two-year old boy gently sobbing as he listens to his sister playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata at a school recital. It feels like watching the process of a little person becoming a little human being. And much as I cannot help but reflexively wish for a life for Frances that is free of pain, and packed full of joy, celebration, fun, and unicorns, I know that this is neither possible nor desirable. My real desire for her is that she grows into a human being who is willing to fully and courageously experience all of life, not just the easy or comfortable bits. She may run into the odd bear every now and again, but the blueberries will be that much sweeter.


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  • Tawny
    Posted on 8th February 2018 at 7:41 am

    Lovely piece of writing Jon!

    • jonhill
      Posted on 8th February 2018 at 9:26 am

      Oh, thanks Tawny!


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