Why Do Humans Get Sad?

[Ed. Note: I’m feeling blue today, courtesy of my job (I hate it sooooo much!), so I thought I’d share this post from my archives. Enjoy.]

379px-vincent_van_gogh_-_sorrowBe it the annual rankings of the world’s happiest countries in USA Today (America currently ranks 17th), the “happiness indexes” published by outlets like the Huffington Post, and the countless articles in magazines like Time that tell us “happiness is within our reach” as long as we know “how and where to look,” it seems Americans are obsessed with happiness. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. America has been thinking about happiness since Thomas Jefferson claimed the “pursuit” of it as one of our inalienable rights back in 1776.

For these reasons and more, most folks associate an upbeat personality and/or a positive outlook with good (mental) health—and it’s what enables sunny side-up writers to pen rose-colored sentences such as, “If you’re an American and you’re not having fun, it just might be your own fault,” (Time) and “If you do not have a positive attitude towards [sic] work, you may want to consider an attitude change in order to improve your work experience” (Wikihow.com).

As an indication of just how much Americans associate happiness with health (and to beat this dying horse a little more*), type the phrase “Why do humans get sad?” into your favorite search engine. The majority of the results will have to do with depression and ways to get out from under it. Never mind that depression and sadness are vastly different. Bottom line: if you’re not smiling then there’s something wrong with you.

Fortunately, psychologists have begun to take note of this tendency to associate sadness with depression and have started to address it. For example, in an article titled “The Benefit of Sadness” that appeared in Psychology Today (March 2012), author Alex Lickerman, MD, writes:

Though the word ‘depression’ has by and large replaced the word ‘sadness’ for what we feel when things don’t go our way or we lose something precious to us, the two are, in fact, quite distinct. Depression describes a specific set of symptoms that cluster together: depressed mood, inability to feel pleasure in pleasurable activities, sleep disturbance, decreased energy, difficulty concentrating, and possibly suicidal thinking. Sadness, on the other hand, may indicate a depressed mood, but may also be felt in a way that has little if any effect on daily function.

These two words weren’t always confused. According to the Merriam Webster New Book of Word Histories, the meaning of sad has changed quite a bit over the years.

Sad has been in the English language at least since the year 1000, and it’s semantic development over the past 900 years has considerably obscured its relation to other familiar English words such as insatiable, satire, and satisfy. The earliest senses of sad were ‘sated,’ ‘satisfied,’ or ‘weary of something.’

By the 14th century sad had developed the sense of ‘firmly established or settled,’ as in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Settled in his face I see/Sad resolution and secure.” Subsequent developments from this sense would appear to be the senses ‘grave, serious’ and ‘downcast, mournful,’ which first appeared in the late 14th century. Today only the latter and the senses derived from it are current in the United States, all the earlier senses having passed from use.”

Now it seems that our understanding of sadness and why we get sad—that is, the role it plays in our lives—is changing too.

To get an expert’s take on the subject, I contacted Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD., a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, and asked her about the evolutionary purpose of sadness. Here’s what she had to say:

“The evolutionary theory is that sadness is a signal that tells us that something is wrong and that we need to attend to it,” said Lyubomirsky. “So, if we’re sad, there’s likely a problem, say, in our romantic relationship or with our child or health or economic status, and we need to think about and figure out a way to address it. This is adaptive and functional.”

Writing on the PBS website’s This Emotional Life blog, David Mrazek, MD, notes that, in addition to serving as a signal that lets us know something is wrong in our own lives, sadness also sends signals to those around us.

Considerable speculation has occurred about the potential evolutionary benefit of sadness. Clearly, the expression of sadness is a powerful communication to those around a grieving friend who is suffering. While signaling sadness to others is often adaptive, sadness also results in individuals withdrawing from everyday responsibilities and provides them an opportunity to begin to recover.

So, if sadness has a purpose or a role to play in human life, why do we try so hard to banish it from our lives and, as the song goes, “put on a happy face”?

Whatever the reasons, we should stop, writes cognitive therapist Dan Roberts in the essay “Why Do We Feel Sad, Angry or Scared?”

Our problems start when we develop an ‘aversive’ reaction to [negative] emotions—thinking, for example, that we should never get angry, or that it’s somehow a sign of weakness to feel sad. We then find ways of suppressing those emotions, which means they churn away inside, causing all sorts of problems for our physical and psychological health.

The key, then, is to accept that all emotions, whether they feel good or not, they are there for a reason. Trying to deny them is a surefire route to unhappiness.



Kim Painter, “Smile: USA ranks 17th among world’s happiest countries,” USA Today (September 2013)
Caroline Gregoire, “Happiness Index: Only 1 in 3 Americans Are Very Happy, According to Harris Poll,” Huffington Post (June 2013)
Jeffrey Kluger, “The Happiness of Pursuit,” Time (July 2013)
“How to Change Attitude at Work,” wikiHow (undated)
Alex Lickerman, MD, “The Benefit of Sadness,” Psychology Today (March 2012)
David Mrazek, MD, PBS website’s This Emotional Life blog
Dan Roberts, “Why Do We Feel Sad, Angry or Scared?” Huffington Post, UK
Merriam Webster New Book of Word Histories, Merriam Webster Inc. 1991

Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

One thought on “Why Do Humans Get Sad?

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