Why do we feel sad? It sounds like a dumb question. We all know what makes us sad (death, failure, conflict, etc.) but what about the science behind it? Sadness is one of the seven basic emotions that plays a role in our everyday lives. Scientists have found that it has a much greater effect on us than making us feel blue or bringing us to tears.

Evolutionary psychologists theorize that

Sadness is the price we pay for our ability to form bonds with one another.”

Humans depend on each other to survive. Sadness is the emotion that makes us remember that fact. Young children feel sad when they are separated from their parents and it’s that sadness that prompts them to cry and/or find their parents, potentially saving their lives. As people grow older, the sadness that accompanies separation is what drives people to continuously invest in relationships.

science of sadness

It’s why breakups are so hard, why it’s difficult to say goodbye at airports, why it’s heart-breaking to watch children go off to college and, most importantly, it’s why the death of a loved one is one of the most painful experiences humans suffer from.

Sadness is what drives us to avoid loss.

The Surprising Benefits of Sadness

As painful as sadness is, it’s not all bad. Psychologists have discovered some surprising benefits of sadness that can help us make light of the emotion and its circumstances.

science of sadness

Sadness Improves Your Judgement

According to Joseph Paul Forgas, Ph.D., sadness reduces two key judgement biases that affect how we view people.

  1. The Fundamental Attribution Error: This is the tendency to believe that people are intentional when they make mistakes or say something wrong. When you’re sad, you’re less likely to think the worst of people.
  2. The Halo Effect: On the opposite end of the spectrum, people also believe that certain people–whether it’s because they’re attractive, successful, or family members–can do no wrong. Sadness gives you a less biased view of people so you also don’t exaggerate their goodness.

Forgas also found that sadness helps people assess situations more accurately because the feeling promotes a more detailed and attentive thinking style.

Sadness Increases Your Motivation

Studies show sadness can be a powerful motivational tool. When you’re happy you tend to want to stay where you are and may not feel as driven to improve because you don’t feel the need to. That’s not the case with sadness.

While you shouldn’t go out of your way to make yourself sad if you are lacking motivation, allowing yourself to embrace the sadness of not being where you want to be in life, whether it’s with your relationships, career, physical health, etc. can motivate you to put in the effort to get to a happier place.

Note: It’s important to note that the benefits sadness are only with sadness, not depression. Sadness is the temporary emotion that we all feel on occasions when we’ve been hurt or something is wrong in our lives and it fades over time. Depression is a chronic mental illness that can have lasting effects and often won’t go away until it’s been treated.

How to Be Less Sad

Despite its short-term benefits, frequently feeling sad lowers your quality of life. Luckily, how you deal with sadness has a huge effect on how powerful it is. According to Deepak Chopra, the best way to cope is to be proactive.

Here are some of his tips:

  • Instead of focusing on your sadness, take actions to be happier
  • Share your feelings with a friend/loved one
  • Focus on improving your well-being. Plenty of research has shown that exercise and eating healthy boosts your mood
  • Recognize what’s making you sad and don’t obsess over the feeling. Everyone experiences sadness and throwing yourself a pity-party isn’t going to help.
Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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