“Is Sad Bad?” A discussion of the impact of sadness on human development

sad faceWhen our emotions are picked and fastened together in a bunch—into our life-bouquet—each bloom emanates its own aroma resulting in the special perfume which is us.   Most people want to have beautiful, happy bouquets, but our collections of emotions sometimes develop differently, and melancholy flowers find their way into the bunch.  Is this bad?  Is a sad bouquet a bad bouquet?

What is a bad emotion?

An important distinction needs to be made between bad emotions and unhealthy emotions.  I suggest that, in some cases, an emotion might actually feel bad, unpleasant or even painful, and yet have a positive, healthy impact on the person (e.g. an empathetic sadness that leads to an act of compassion, or a logical fear of real danger).   I also suggest that, in just the same way, an unhealthy emotion might actually feel good (e.g. euphoria that leads to an impulsive and dangerous act, or excessive pride that drives someone into a situation for which they are not prepared).   I argue that any emotion—including sadness—is ‘bad’ and ‘unhealthy’ ONLY when experienced at irrational times and in unreasonable amounts.

When is sadness good?

In his seminal work, “The Laws of Emotions,” Dutch Psychologist Nico Frijda “loosely” defines emotions as: “responses to events that are important to the individual.”   From minor misfortune to major loss, sadness can be a logical, humane response, and often serves an important function in the experience of life.

On the minor side, even in children, we see the benefit of sadness in the self-regulation of behavior.  Consider empathy, for example.  Empathy is “shared sadness” that enables us to “respond compassionately to the feelings of others,” leading even a three-year-old to try to comfort a sobbing child; or giving a five-year-old pause before hitting another child and taking his toy (Butterfield, et al., 2003, p. 57-58).

On the major side are the more intense, heavier states of sadness, such as grief.  In my experience, the sadness that results from the loss of life is a precious part of my existence.

(In psychology, we often refer to “feeling tones.”  These tones are sorts of shadows of emotion, elements of consciousness that are not thoughts, memories or perceptions.  They are sensations similar to those described in my earlier post on somatic knowledge.)

The tone that shadows grief is most certainly painful—even tremendously so—but it is a sacred acknowledgement that someone has gone.  If such permanent departures went unnoticed by the emotions in this somber way, life’s sanctity would not be respected.  Perhaps loss would not even be avoided, and life would cease to exist.  Clearly in these cases, whether minor or major, children should not be prevented from experiencing sadness, but should be coached to tap into its powerful nature as they develop working models and relationships.

When is sadness bad?

Having defined a ‘bad’ emotion as one that is illogically timed or that is in unreasonable amounts, a sadness that occurs for no apparent reason can be a sign of unhealth or imbalance.  Unexplained changes in cortisol levels, for example, and hormonal imbalances may be to blame; meaning that the body is using the emotion as an alert that something is wrong (Rappolt-Schlichtmann, et al., 2009).

Considered another way, in Frijda’s Law of Apparent Reality, he speaks of “the weakness of reason as opposed to the strength of passion,” and of when “feeling means more than knowing” (1988, p. 352).  It should be acknowledged that this is another possible line between healthy and unhealthy emotions (good and bad).  When emotion separates us from reality and loosens our mental grip on the truth, it is detrimental.

This concept of separation is also important in relation to others.  According to Butterfield, et al. (2003, p. 58), when sadness is not shared (when empathy is not internalized), children turn inward, and it is “devastating” to development, leading to a lifetime difficulty in “finding friends, mentors, or social acceptance.”  This separation is clearly unhealthy, and can be used to define sadness as bad.

Emotional fundamental to being intelligent

One of my professors at Harvard, Kurt Fischer, often says that “being emotional is fundamental to being intelligent.”  Emotions, even difficult ones, must be embraced in one’s search for knowledge and growth.  And in that process of development, sadness regularly occurs.  Often there is a logical, biological or hormonal explanation.

Sometimes there is not.

Sadness can just fall upon a person.  While science seeks to define and understand the mind and the body, I believe that humans are also made up of a spirit.  It is this spirit that sometimes responds with what we call sadness.  The “principle of living a spiritual life” is key, enabling us to “deal with loss,” and to “perceive…meaning” even in sadness (Mascolo & Fischer, 2009).

Rather than an exit from reality, perhaps it is a profound pursuit of truth—indeed a solemn quest to know the very essence of compassion, tenderness, sensitivity and loving-kindness—as human sorrow embraces that which is noble and honorable.  And good.

Butterfield, P.M., Martin, C.A., & Prairie, A.P. (2003).  Relationships are emotional connections. In Emotional connections: How relationships guide early learning (pp.46-64).  Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.
Frijda, N.H. (1998).  The laws of emotion.  American Psychologist, 43, 349-358.
Frith, U. (2001).  Mind blindness and the brain in autism.  Neuron, 32(6), 969-979.
Mascolo, M.F., & Fischer, K.W. (2009, in press).  The dynamic development of thinking, feeling, and acting over the lifespan.  In R.M. Lerner & W. Overton (Eds.), Handbook of Life-Span Development.  Vol. 1: Cognition, neuroscience, methods.  New York: Wiley.
Rappolt-Schlichtmann, G., Willett, J.B., Ayoub, C.C., Lindsley, R., Hulette, A.C., & Fischer, K.W. (2009).  Poverty, relationship conflict, and the regulation of cortisol in small and large group contexts at child care.  Mind, Brain, and Education, 3, 131-142.

6 comments for ““Is Sad Bad?” A discussion of the impact of sadness on human development

  1. February 8, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    I will describe your essay as eye opening and highly intellectual. It’s amazing that even after reading all this books on happiness,not only did I not realize that “sad” can be good but also I never noticed anybody argue against your thesis.Thanks so much for your inspiring insight on “good sadness”.

    • February 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm

      Thank you, Aliker. The spirit transcends the feeling tones and reaches into places beyond human comprehension. I am grateful for your feedback.

  2. February 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    “If such permanent departures went unnoticed by the emotions in this somber way, life’s sanctity would not be respected. ”

    Powerful. Thank you.

  3. Stephanie
    February 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Hi Nathaniel!
    Again, a beautiful, eloquent, highly relevant piece. You have a way of being scholarly and accessible all at the same time – a true gift!

    I had a few thoughts as I read:

    One is a concept that is often talked about in Buddhism: skillfull or unskillful, in terms of dealing with the emotions. So it’s not the emotion itself that is “bad”, but it’s how we handle it, which again, isn’t necessarily “bad,” but is rather skillful or unskillful. Do we take a few deep breaths when we feel angry (skillful)? Or do we lash out and verbally or physically attack someone (in most situations, unskillful)? I really like the idea of framing it in terms of our reaction to the emotions rather than the emotion itself, and also the word “skillful/unskillful” rather than good/bad.

    Another thing that this brought to mind was the idea of peace being passive. Now, bear with me here 🙂 But it almost always come up in workshops that “OK, we’re talking about all this peace, but is anger considered BAD in peace? Isn’t anger important? Isn’t there a place for anger in the face of injustice? All this peace stuff sounds passive.” On my list of blogs to write about is a blog entitles “Peace is not Passive,” for exactly the reasons you talk about, and the reasons I outlined above. Peace does not reject anger – indeed, anger, when handled skillfully, can be a great impetus for action. Peace rather requires developing skill in handling our emotions.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

  4. Lynne Hartke
    August 15, 2014 at 5:41 am

    Enjoyed reading this again as I process this season of grief, I hope, in healthy ways. Blessings, my friend.

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