Homo sapiens is a very moody species. Even though sadness and bad moods have always been part of the human experience, we now live in an age that ignores or devalues these feelings.
In our culture, normal human emotions like temporary sadness are often treated as disorders. Manipulative advertising, marketing and self-help industries claim happiness should be ours for the asking. Yet bad moods remain an essential part of the normal range of moods we regularly experience.
It’s time to re-assess the role of bad moods in our lives. We should recognise they are a normal, and even a useful and adaptive part of being human, helping us cope with many everyday situations and challenges.
A short history of sadness
In earlier historical times, short spells of feeling sad or moody (known as mild dysphoria) have always been accepted as a normal part of everyday life. In fact, many of the greatest achievements of the human spirit deal with evoking, rehearsing and even cultivating negative feelings.
Greek tragedies exposed and trained audiences to accept and deal with inevitable misfortune as a normal part of human life. Shakespeare’s tragedies are classics because they echo this theme. And the works of many great artists such as Beethoven and Chopin in music, or Chekhov and Ibsen in literature explore the landscape of sadness, a theme long recognised as instructive and valuable.
Ancient philosophers have also believed accepting bad moods is essential to living a full life. Even hedonist philosophers like Epicurus recognised living well involves exercising wise judgement, restraint, self-control and accepting inevitable adversity.
Other philosophers like the stoics also highlighted the importance of learning to anticipate and accept misfortunes, such as loss, sorrow or injustice.
What is the point of sadness?
Psychologists who study how our feelings and behaviours have evolved over time maintain all our affective states (such as moods and emotions) have a useful role: they alert us to states of the world we need to respond to.
In fact, the range of human emotions includes many more negative than positive feelings. Negative emotions such as fear, anger, shame or disgust are helpful because they help us recognise, avoid and overcome threatening or dangerous situations.
But what is the point of sadness, perhaps the most common negative emotion, and one most practising psychologists deal with?
Intense and enduring sadness, such as depression, is obviously a serious and debilitating disorder. However, mild, temporary bad moods may serve an important and useful adaptive purpose, by helping us to cope with everyday challenges and difficult situations. They also act as a social signal that communicates disengagement, withdrawal from competition and provides a protective cover. When we appear sad or in a bad mood, people often are concerned and are inclined to help.