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We might not want to admit it, but it’s true: everyone cries. Whether we’re having a bad day or watching a sad movie — the waterworks come out and there's just no stopping it.
Sadness is a natural part of being human. Some of us spend so much time avoiding it that, when we finally do cry, it’s like opening the floodgates. Days or weeks of pent-up emotion come rushing out. And then, after we’re done, we feel better.
When we feel blue, we might wonder, “What is sadness for?” Sadness plays an important role in our health and wellbeing, so we’re here to tell you about the evolutionary purpose of sadness and how it affects your life.
What is the purpose of sadness?
The foundational human emotions include joy, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. Sadness belongs on this list, too. It may not feel like positive emotion, but there are some surprising benefits of sadness:
1. It helps us feel strong in the face of adversity
Even the fiercest fighters know how important rest is, and sadness lets us do just that. When we’re feeling sad, we might feel tired, sluggish, and less receptive to the world. But what are our body and our mind telling us? To regain our strength.
By giving ourselves the permission to feel sadness, we’re actually regaining our strength.
2. It forces us to confront what’s happening to us
When we’re sad, we look inward to identify what’s bothering, hurting, or angering us. When we know what’s hurting us, we can start healing.
3. It tells others we need help
When we’re sad, we can’t help it. We wear it on our sleeves. Showing our emotions can help signal that we need support. And for your support system, it’s important they’re attuned to your emotions. That way, other people that we’re going through something and may need their help.
4. It reminds us of life’s meaning
Sadness acknowledges the special role of things in our lives. If we’re sad about a fight with a friend, it’s because that person is important to us. If we’re sad that we didn’t get a job we applied for, it’s because we care about our career development.
In a lot of ways, sadness reminds us of our personal values, our purpose, and our passions.
5. It teaches us to adapt
Life is full of things we can’t avoid. But sadness is a great teacher. What makes us sad now might not be so hard later because we’ve learned to adapt and be resilient.
6. It connects us with others
The function of sadness
Human emotions are the result of millions of years of evolution. They serve specific purposes that are instrumental in our survival. Fear, for example, helps us avoid vicious predators, while anger boosts our adrenaline so we can defend ourselves.
There’s a lot we don’t know about how sadness works. But, so far, scientists can say that sadness has the following effects on people:
- It improves our memory. When we’re feeling blue, we tend to notice and remember small details in our environment. On the other hand, things tend to blur together when we’re happy — giving credence to the expression “time flies when we’re having fun.”
- It improves our judgment. Sadness reduces the influence of our cognitive biases, including how we perceive others. For example, we’re less likely to make positive or negative assumptions about someone based on their appearance.
- It motivates us. When we’re sad, we’re reminded that something is amiss. It’s a wake-up call to make some positive changes.
- It deepens our interactions. The vulnerability of sadness lets us empathize with others. This can allow for deeper interactions and meaningful connections.
- It makes us kinder people. We’re more likely to extend a hand to others because we would like them to do the same for us.
What triggers sadness
We usually experience sadness because we have lost something. The word “lost” here has a broad meaning.
The biggest example is the loss of a loved one. But we also feel loss when we go through a breakup (loss of a relationship), is fired from a job (loss of income), or are rejected admission to a college (loss of an opportunity). Loss comes in many forms, and so too does sadness.
The symptoms of sadness
There are four ways we can detect sadness in ourselves and in others:
- Facial expressions. Pay attention to the eyebrows. When a person is sad, they will usually angle their inner corners. Very few people can move these muscles voluntarily, so it’s a reliable sign of genuine sadness.
- Vocal expressions. This will vary depending on the intensity of the sadness. If someone is in distress, their voice will either become lower or higher in pitch and volume.
- Sensations. A sad person might feel a tightness in their chest, heavy limbs, and watery eyes.
- Posture. Someone sad might hunch their back with their head pointing downwards.
The many colors of sadness
Sadness is a complex emotion, containing many feelings within it. We can think of these as the “colors” or different possible feelings of sadness. Here are some examples:
We can also experience sadness alongside emotions like anger, fear, and even joy. Sometimes it’s impossible to untangle these complex emotions without outside help.
How to cope with sadness
When we’re in a negative mood, it’s important to cope in a healthy manner. Here are some tools for your coping toolkit:
1. Write in a journal
Journaling gives us a safe space to express our thoughts without fear of judgment. We process our emotions and leave them on the page when we write.
2. Be kind to yourself
It’s common to chastise ourselves for feeling sad. But this only breeds more negative emotions. Instead, we should accept our sadness and allow ourselves to feel it.
3. Practice meditation
4. Talk with someone
We can reach out to a friend, family member, or professional therapist. We can share our emotions with them, easing the burden on our shoulders.
5. Engage in comforting activities
There’s a reason why sad people eat ice cream and watch Inside Out for the umpteenth time. It’s good to engage all of our senses with comforting things. This is a tenet of good self-care.
7. Give it time
Some sadness takes a long time to heal from. Its lessons aren’t immediately apparent, but they will appear eventually. We need to be patient.
Sadness vs. Depression: What’s the difference?
The key difference between sadness and depression is time. Sadness lasts as long as most emotions, spanning several hours to multiple days. But it always goes away eventually or is replaced by something else.
On the other hand, depression or a major depressive disorder is a serious mental illness that usually doesn’t go away on its own. Sometimes it manifests as persistent and extreme sadness, interfering with daily living, or it can manifest through a general lack of emotion, apathy, and numbness.
When to get help
It's never too early to reach out for support. If you feel like your sadness is overwhelming or struggling with overwhelming negative thoughts and low self-esteem, you can connect with a mental health professional. People trained in psychiatry can use psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, or prescribe antidepressants to help you.
If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line (text Hello to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day. After July 16, 2022, the official national number is 988.
So, is sadness good for you?
The short answer is: yes! Sadness is a deep, complex, and beautiful emotion with many benefits. When we cry, it makes us stronger. It connects us to other people. And, more often than not, it means we enjoyed something beautiful in life — even if it was only for a little while. After all, if it wasn’t beautiful, it wouldn’t be worth crying about!
Now that you know the purpose of sadness, you can embrace your next sad mood. Put on your pajamas, eat a tub of ice cream, and cry at a Disney Pixar movie. You’ll feel better.
And if you want even more life and career advice, try BetterUp. We can help you build everything from your leadership skills to expanding your LinkedIn network. Let’s unlock your full potential together.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.