JFS Perspectives

Friday, September 18, 2015

Mental Health Matters: The Power of Sadness

Photo credit: pixar.wikia.com

This summer’s animated film Inside Out was an entertaining and inventive look into the inner workings of an 11-year-old child’s brain. It also provided a potent and moving lesson on the importance of sadness.

Sadness, one of our so-called negative emotions, can be difficult for us to tolerate. It’s uncomfortable. It’s painful. It’s also a normal reaction to difficult life experiences and is a part of being human. Yet we are often encouraged to distance ourselves from sadness in order to feel better, as if there is something inherently wrong with feeling sad.

Studies have shown that, contrary to being a “useless” emotion, sadness is beneficial to us in ways that actually enhance our well-being. Joseph Paul Forgas, Ph.D., has discovered that when we are sad, we can remember details more accurately, have better judgment, and have more motivation than when we are happy. This seems to be due in part to sadness functioning as a signal that something is not right, making us more attentive to detail, more alert to social cues, and/or more motivated to make changes.

Inside Out explored a more immediate benefit of sadness. In the movie, the character, Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), does all the heavy lifting in terms of the little girl’s functioning: tamping down Anger, Fear, and Disgust, and attempting to put Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) in a corner of the brain where she can’t touch anything. This works well for the child until she has life changes that naturally make her feel bad; then the more Joy works to keep Sadness at bay, the worse the child functions. It’s only when Sadness is allowed to come to the surface and be felt by the child that she actually begins to feel better.

The point is, when we experience difficulties, such as loss, we’re supposed to feel sad. Trying to distance ourselves from sadness may force the feeling underground and stop the healing process (and possibly lead to depression).

Embracing sadness, on the other hand, helps us identify what is wrong and promotes thinking of ways to cope with and heal from difficult experiences. It allows us to know ourselves better and increases our empathy for others. Talking about the feeling connects us, elicits support, and brings more meaning to our relationships. We do not have to do anything to begin this process because when we experience difficulties, sadness prompts us to slow down and feel, which is exactly what we need to do to heal.

So the next time sadness occurs, think about the impact of this powerful emotion on our lives, our relationships, and the way we function in the world. And remember, without sadness, we could not appreciate happiness.

Worry that your sadness has turned into depression? Contact the JFS Mental Health Specialists at 303.597.7777 for further information.

Betty TulliusBetty Tullius is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a master’s in clinical psychology. She has more than 15 years of clinical experience and has been with Jewish Family Service for 10 years. She works with adults, adolescents, families, and couples dealing with life changes, stress, depression, and anxiety.