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HHH Blog

49. Value of Sadness

PUBLISHED 18th April , 2017

Today I’m attempting to create a bit of balance. As you know my aim is to give you the tools to create a happier and more fulfilling life. However, this know-how is offered for those who want it, and by their own estimation feel that they could benefit from it. Being happy is not compulsory! I was very sad for many years and NOTHING was worse than others’ suggestion that I should try to be happier. Many aspects of my life were tough at the time. It was downright unkind to make me feel worse by burdening me with guilt for not feeling more upbeat.

It is true that science can now impart advice on how psychological wellbeing can be raised. However, this science should not be used as a tyranny. And it certainly should not be used as an excuse for not showing compassion to another.

As the Schumpeter blog points out, firms now apply the finding that happier employees are more productive as an excuse to discriminate against, select for, and put pressure on employees to be – or at least act – happy. See http://www.economist.com/news/business-and-finance/21707502-companies-try-turn-happiness-management-tool-are-overstepping-mark. This is, as the blog concludes, “an unacceptable invasion of individual liberty”. McDonald and O’Callaghan predicted earlier that positive psychology, in its aim to liberate psychology from a preoccupation with negative/pathological states, may be simply creating a new set of rules and prescriptions that define what is positive in human life. Such prescription then makes it possible to qualify, classify and punish.1 And that is exactly what is now occurring.

Sadness is part of life. An important, valuable part of life. Sharon Begely points out that these days natural sadness is regularly confused with the broad definition of depression. She argues that herein lies the potentially most damaging result of the happiness industry: that in the future, sadness is considered a disease, is no longer tolerated, and is correspondingly medicated. Yet negative moods foster analytical, critical and innovative thinking, Begley stresses, and we should not forget that many eminent, highly productive and creative personalities in human history were melancholic, from Beethoven, Vincent van Gough, Emily Dickinson to Abraham Lincoln.2

Diener and Biswas-Diener note that negative emotions often serve a purpose, and assist us in functioning adequately, interpreting life and acting accordingly. On the back of a negative emotion may follow a motivation for an improvement: fear may end up protecting us and guilt may help us to make better decisions. 3 According to Diener and Biswas-Diener, sporadic bouts of anger, worry or sadness should not disconcert us. It is not the absence of negative emotions that makes us happier people; it is that we get the balance right, that we experience more positive than negative emotions overall.4

Diener and Biswas-Diener advise that it is better to be a very happy, rather than an extremely happy person. There is a level at which we are happy enough, where cheerfulness does not replace duty, critical thinking, hard work and responsibility. They point out that the ability to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, worry, shame and guilt is what differentiates a normal person from a sociopath or psychopath! Furthermore, studies that related health and happiness showed that the most upbeat individuals with late-stage or terminal illnesses were more likely to die than those who were not as happy. And among 100,000 people from around the world, those who scored 10 out of 10 for happiness and those with low scores had lower incomes and less education than those who scored 7-9 out of 10. The magic number seems to be 8, Diener and Biswas-Diener conclude.5

Martin Seligman relates how he woke up to the need of applying positive psychology in his own life: He was weeding with his five year old daughter, who was throwing the weeds up in the air, singing and dancing. He yelled at her. Upset, she walked away. On her return she told him that she had, on her fifth birthday, decided to stop whining. That this was the hardest thing she had ever done. But if she could stop whining, she said, surely he could stop being such a grouch. It was at this moment Seligman realised what a grumpy person he was and decided to lighten up.6 Yet his previous grouchiness had not stopped him from doing important and positive work.

Many years ago I attended a prestigious philosophical discussion round on the topic of happiness. I didn’t contribute, but clearly remember my thoughts as I walked out: if only people didn’t pressure others to be happy! If only we were more accepting of sadness, frustration, disappointment or anxiety when they arrive in our lives! Why all this obsession with happiness? A year later my life changed and became much harder, and I was often very unhappy. After years of this I hit rock bottom more than once – twice went to see a GP because I was suicidal. However, because I felt that I had grown as a consequence of my hardship, I started a research project into post-traumatic growth. That’s when I came upon positive psychology. By then I had nothing to lose; I had forgotten how to be happy.

The aspect that gives positive psychology its kudos is its emphasis on eudaimonic wellbeing. Eudaimonia is a concept first championed by Aristotle, who linked happiness to a person’s virtuous traits. Eudaimonic wellbeing is a result of using one’s individual character strengths and virtues, plus aspects such as having autonomy, positive relationships, mastery in living in the environment, personal growth, self-acceptance and purpose in life.7 In contrast, the hedonic approach to happiness is to seek pleasurable experiences and sensory gratifications, to avoid pain and discomfort,8 and to focus on bodily appetites and self-interests.9 Thus our main focus should lie in the pursuit of eudaimonic wellbeing, in being the best version of ourselves that we can be. Alongside that, we should to keep an eye out for some clean, hedonic fun.

There has to be balance in our lives. If you are miserable today, ask yourself: have you been feeling very low for two weeks? Have you dropped some of your regular tasks, responsibilities or self-care such as brushing your teeth, going to work, or cooking for the children? If yes, you may in fact be depressed and need to see a doctor right away. Perhaps your sadness stems from a misfortune, trauma or loss? In this case you need the support of someone very close to you and quite likely – depending on the severity of the event – a counsellor or psychologist. If you are in neither category but want more joy and meaning, use this blog. But don’t deny your negative feelings. They are messages from your heart, and are there to help you find your way.

© Natalie Lydia Barker 2017


  1. Matthew McDonald and Jean O’Callaghan, “Positive psychology: A Foucauldian Critique,” The Humanistic Psychologist 36 no. 2 (2008).
  2. Sharon Begley, “Happiness: Enough Already; The Push for Ever-greater Well-bing is Facing a Backlash, Fuelled by Research on the Value of Sadness,” Newsweek 151, no. 6 (11 February 2008).
  3. Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008).
  4. Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness.
  5. Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness.
  6. Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (New York: Free Press, 2004).
  7. Brent D. Robbins, “What is the Good Life? Positive Psychology and the Renaissance of Humanistic Psychology,” The Humanistic Psychologist 36, no. 2 (2008).
  8. Jacolyn M. Norrish and Dianne V. Vella-Brodrick, “Is the Study of Happiness a Worthy Scientific Pursuit?” Social Indicators Research 87, no. 3 (2008).
  9. Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, “On Happiness and Human Potentials: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-being,” Annual Review of Psychology 52 (2001).


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