Forget everything you thought you knew about sadness
We hate being sad. It interrupts our lives, stops us from doing what we want, and frankly just feels really bad. We hate it so much that we collectively agreed that sadness must be the opposite of happiness, but nothing can be farther from the truth. Correlation does not imply causation, and even though sadness correlates with pain, it doesn’t cause it.
This article will take a step back and look at sadness from a very unconventional angle. We will begin with the need for sadness, its cause and purpose, and will end exploring the best and quickest way to experience sadness and regain emotional balance. By the end of this article, you will know how to separate pain from sadness, and be able to skillfully use sadness as a tool for growth.
What is Sadness?
Physiologically, sadness is the absolute opposite of anger and fear. As anger and fear, your fight and flight emotions, crank up the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn makes the body work faster. Sadness shifts the balance towards the parasympathetic side, which causes the body to slow down.
Heart rate decreases, blood pressure drops, and the body becomes calm, soft, and relaxed. In turn, making you feel heavy, tired, slow, passive, and wish to just lay down and rest, frankly, it just feels like being sick.
The Cause of Sadness
Sadness seems to come as a response to a loss. The loss of acceptance, appreciation, love, comfort, or even possessions. At the same time, sadness also seems to be a response to misbehaviors, wrong or mistaken actions, and failures. And also as a pare of guilt, when we mistakenly hurt people we care about or even ourselves.
How is it possible that such different things feel so much alike?
To understand the true meaning of sadness we must find the common denominator in all of these seemingly separate situations and events. In all cases, something undesirable happens, something that wasn’t intended. Either we hurt someone, but didn’t mean to, or we lost something which we intended to keep. In all of these cases, we believed that a certain behavior will bring a certain result, but it didn’t.
Seems that the one thing all of these events have in common is dissonance. We thought we were doing things right, but as we later found out, we weren’t. Dissonance is a sense of disharmony between one’s actions, intentions, and beliefs. This sense of disharmony induces both the feeling of a painful discomfort and sadness.
Best Practice When Dealing With Dissonance
Let’s put sadness aside for a minute and try to think what a best-response for dissonance might be.
Dissonance is a form of cognitive inconsistency. It is a state where the two hemispheres can’t agree on a course of action. Due to that, a decision can appear to be both right and wrong at the same time. As an example, let’s say you have a friend who’s feeling blue and you wish to make them feel better. You tell them that everything’s going to be alright, but it ends up making them feel worse.
The theoretical left side of the brain says: “this has to make them feel better”, and at the same time, the practical right side of the brain says: “this makes them feel worse”. In this state of dissonance, your decision to tell them that it’s going to be alright is both right and wrong at the same time. Causing a pretty complicated situation in which you really don’t know what to say next, and it is as painful as being ripped apart.
While in a state of dissonance, your decision-making mechanism is flawed. Whatever you do next is going to be wrong according to at least one side of your brain. Therefore, when in a state of dissonance, the best thing you can do is back off. Don’t push yourself into making a rash decision and don’t try to force your beliefs, simply stop and take some time to re-think your previous assumptions.
The second thing this situation requires is thinking. Think about what you intended to achieve, try to figure out why it didn’t work, and try to come up with new things you can do that might bring a more desired result. This stage is probably best done on your own or maybe with a close friend, one who can offer a new outlook on the situation. This stage is incredibly important as the adjustments you are going to make will stay with you for the rest of your life, or at least until the next case of dissonance. You should probably take your time with this stage and do your best not to jump to conclusions and quick fixes.
Once you come up with a satisfactory solution, your brain will actually physically adjust itself and create the new neural connections needed. After these changes have been made, you will become a new and improved person. One who will react to the same situations in a different way, and hopefully, this time without causing any dissonance.
But so far these changes are only temporary, the brain can only apply long-term changes to the neural network when you sleep. So the last stage in getting rid of dissonance and the facilitation of your newly created habits is to take a nap.
To sum up, stop what you’re doing, take a time-out, think about what happened, and let your brain readjust with a nap. Unsurprisingly, evolution has been completely right, the process of sadness is indeed the best response to dissonance.
Unlike common beliefs, sadness itself is not painful at all, it is the dissonance that feels painful. Sadness is the solution for the pain. But since dissonance and sadness always come together, we mistakenly pair them with each other.
Sadness, in a way, is a type of an evolutionary kill switch. It is a masterfully designed tool to reduce the pain caused by dissonance and regain harmony. If handed over control, sadness will take you through the exact process described above. But when resisted, as dissonance grows stronger and stronger, feeling of intense pain, torment and agony arise. And as we constantly reject our sadness, we enforce our mistaken belief that pain is an inseparable part of sadness.
Reintegration of Sadness
Sadness is important for two reasons. First, in yourself, it is your indication that you did something wrong, and it allows you to stop before causing any more damage. And second, in others, it is your indication that the person in front of you has acknowledged his mistakes, so you can cease your offense and stop pushing. A person who rejects his sadness will experience difficulties in self-regulation of behavior, fail to recognize his own mistakes, and won’t know when to quit.
Sadness is a part of our mental immune system. Physical injuries, and cognitive injuries both trigger pain, and both also initiate an immune response. Sadness, just like inflammation, is always accompanied by pain, but it is never a cause of pain. And just like suppressing your white blood cells will only make your injury worse, so does suppressing your sadness.
Sadness is not as evil as we might have been led to believe. In fact, it is one of the most valuable thinking tools we humans possess. Sadness holds an imperative role in the self-regulation and self-correction of behavior. It exists to correct your mistakes, adjust your behavior and release you from the pain of dissonance. Due to that, it is a necessary tool for self-improvement and growth, since without recognizing our mistakes, we are helpless against them.
When sadness comes, don’t fight it, take a break, think it over, and try something new. The quicker you can recognize sadness rising within you, the quicker you’ll be able to release it. Resulting in less emotional pain, and a more positive and favorable outcome. Feeling, thinking, and then maybe a little nap can get me through the nastiest case of sadness in under an hour.
If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.