How feeling sad can help us find more joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

They say you’re not officially a New Yorker until you’ve cried on the subway. If this is true, then I’m probably a New Yorker about ten times over by now. I remember one time in particular when, still reeling from a bad breakup, I had attended a cocktail party celebrating a friend’s engagement in the city. Watching all my coupled friends talk about their wedding plans and registries, I began to think I’d be alone forever. I had stopped at Whole Foods to pick up dinner from the hot bar, and as I headed home to an empty apartment on the F train with my lonely little box of organic cafeteria food, my eyes began to water, and soon I was sobbing so hard my vision was blurry. A stranger asked if I was ok, and when I calmed down a bit, proceeded to hit on me. I was relieved when the train screeched into my station, and I could snuffle “This is my stop,” before bolting out the door and into the night.

Sadness can catch us off guard like that, and when it does, we don’t always quite know what to do about it. In the era of positive psychology, we’re all well-versed in the benefits of joy and happiness, and certainly I’m a believer in those benefits. But at times our bright-sided culture can oversimplify the emotional spectrum into equations: joy = good, sad = bad.

In reality, feeling more joy doesn’t mean eliminating sadness from our vocabulary. Paradoxically, it might mean feeling our sadness more deeply. This is because when we numb ourselves to avoid feeling so-called negative emotions, we end up also blunting our capacity to feel positive ones. One example of this is bracing, where we end up holding back from joy because we’re so afraid of the disappointment or loss we might feel when it ends.

When we feel deep sadness or loss, it makes us appreciate what (and who) we have in our lives. Grieving a loved one can increase our gratitude for the time we had with that person, and make us more present to our loved ones who are still with us. Losing an opportunity we badly wanted can help focus our attention on what really matters to us. And feeling deep sorrow can provide a valley against which we will measure the heights of our future joy. I often feel that the darkest days of my infertility journey intensify the joy I find in being a parent now. Even when parenting gets hard, I can still see with clear eyes how lucky I am to have Graham, and it helps me find delight amidst the struggle.

This week I had a chance to chat with bestselling author Helen Russell about her new book, How to be Sad (also the title of her podcast), on Instagram Live. In our conversation, Helen shared wisdom and research from her book on why we struggle so much with feelings of sadness, what to do when we’re feeling sad, and how sadness can help us ultimately find more joy. (Watch the full conversation here.)

No one likes to be sad, of course, but in the West (and America in particular) we have a particular tendency to avoid it. In her book, Helen shares research from psychologist Jeanne Tsai at the Culture and Emotion Lab at Stanford which says that our obsession with the pursuit of happiness has resulted in a view that sadness is a kind of failure. Because we’ve been sold the idea that happiness is something we should be able to achieve on our own terms, sadness means that it’s our fault that we’ve somehow missed the mark. For example, the sadness of a breakup or losing a job can make us feel ashamed, as if we didn’t try hard enough (and comments from family can sometimes reinforce this), when in fact it was simply poor timing, corporate downsizing, or bad luck.

Many Westerners, British people in particular, also have a “keep calm and carry on” mentality that views sadness as indulgent. We’re supposed to ignore negative feelings and push through, or else we risk being a “Debbie Downer” or a “wet blanket” — ruining other people’s good time. This may be why so often we feel the need to apologize for being sad. As Helen notes in her book, the words “sorrow” and “sorry” come from similar origins.

The problem is that avoiding sadness doesn’t eliminate it. It might even prolong it. That’s because emotions don’t disappear when we avoid them. They just come back in a different way, when a new trigger activates an old, unhealed wound. “If we have poor emotional regulation,” Helen says, describing the research of Nathanial Herr on how we manage and process difficult feelings, “it will manifest in three ways. We’ll feel that emotion more quickly than other people might. It will stay with us for longer. And also it will take us longer to come down from that.”

Avoiding sadness can also lead to a range of maladaptive coping behaviors that we use to try to numb our emotions, from drinking and drugs to disordered eating to workaholism. In How to be Sad, Helen quotes psychologist Julia Samuels, who says, “I have regularly seen that it is not the pain of loss that damages individuals, but the things they do to avoid that pain.” Blocking out our sorrow prevents us from coping with it. Allowing ourselves to feel sadness enables us to move through the emotion so we can access our resilience. To that point, Helen notes that studies show that people who allow themselves to feel sad in response to difficult events are happier in the long-term than those who try to avoid or repress it.

I think many of us avoid sadness because we’re afraid it will overwhelm us. Learning how to navigate sadness is critical so that we don’t heap fear or shame on top of an already difficult situation. With this in mind, here are five ways Helen Russell shares in her book that can help you deal with difficult feelings in healthy ways.

Allow space to feel

“The first rule of sad club is ‘Don’t fight it,’” says Helen. Give yourself a designated time, even just five minutes, to sit (or walk, or write) with the sad feelings. When you make space for those difficult feelings, it decreases the likelihood they’ll burst out at a time when you don’t want them to, like on the subway, or when you sit down to a holiday meal with your family.

This can be particularly helpful if you find yourself triggered by other people’s good news while you’re going through a tough period. Helen mentioned having to show up for a string of work baby showers while she was going through IVF. She always allowed herself a few minutes to feel and recompose herself, rather than pushing through. You can also ask friends to email or text if they have good news, which can give you space to process so that you can react to their good news while still keeping space for your own sorrow.

Have a good cry

As someone who tends to break into tears at the slightest provocation, I was heartened to discover that crying can actually be beneficial. Helen cites research that shows that people who cry are less likely to feel “negative aggressive feelings” — these are feelings like rage and disgust — than non-criers. In other words, tears help us channel our feelings of sadness in less harmful ways. Crying also seems to decrease levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and help elicit social support. Unlike venting anger, which can actually increase aggression and make us feel worse, expressing our sadness through words and sobs can be a valuable mode of self-soothing.

Yet crying is often seen as a sign of weakness, especially for men. Our socialization plays a role here. “By the age of ten, boys are told ‘Don’t cry’ and girls are told, ‘Don’t get angry,’ but you’re allowed, perhaps, tears of frustration,” says Helen. So society coaches men to express anger and women to cry, but not too much, and only in private. Normalizing expressions of emotion, including crying, can help make it safer for all of us to feel our emotions in a more honest and authentic way.

Get granular

Are you feeling sad or melancholy? Are you irritated or frustrated? Sometimes when we’re sad, we don’t want to look too closely at the feeling, so we just say we’re blue and leave it at that. But it turns out that examining our sadness and putting words to the feeling can help us process those difficult emotions. This technique, known as emotional granularity or emotional differentiation, involves precisely naming and describing our emotions, and has been shown to help improve mental health outcomes.

This is particularly relevant given what Helen shared about our gendered lens on emotion. Because sadness is more acceptable for women than anger, women who examine their sadness may find anger underneath it. Addressing that anger may end up being more effective in resolving the sadness, because it helps identify the root cause. On the flip side, some men may find that they default to anger because they’ve been conditioned to see tears as weak. Identifying the loss behind the anger can make it possible to grieve and heal.

To practice emotional granularity, explore different words for how you’re feeling. Try each one on and see how it fits. A helpful tool for this is Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, which shows related emotions at different intensities. Another way to distinguish emotions is to pay attention to the physiological experience of your emotions. What does the emotion feel like in your body? Instead of saying “bad” or “hurts,” try descriptive words like “heavy,” “sharp,” “cold,” or “pulsing.” For example, I’ve come to learn that sometimes my tears are accompanied by a feeling I can only describe as “frothy.” Over time, by paying attention to when I get that feeling, I’ve discovered that it comes when I feel a sense of helplessness, like I’m afraid my needs won’t be heard or met. This feeling is more specific than “sad,” and it gives me clearer direction on what I can do to resolve the situation.

By getting to know the physical character of your emotions, you can start to recognize different feelings more readily, and understand the messages behind your automatic responses.

Phone a friend

If you’ve watched the Pixar film Inside Out, you probably remember that one of the functions of sadness is to elicit social support. Being sad lets others know we need them. And we do need a friend in times of adversity — not to “fix” us or try to solve our problems, but simply to listen. Talking to a friend helps lighten the burden of sadness. In her book, Helen shares a Greek saying, “When grief is shared it is halved.”

Often when we’re experiencing sadness, shame is just around the corner. We may feel ashamed of our inability to control our emotions, of losing a job or a partner, or of not reaching a life milestone when we (or others) believed we should. Having the support of a friend can help ward off shame by reminding us that we’re not alone, and that we’re loved despite our failings.

Talking to a friend also allows us to practice that skill of emotional granularity. By working through our feelings with someone we trust, we bring the emotions up into the light and get a closer look at them.

Helen recommends a kind of buddy system: having a friend where you agree to listen for them without judgment, and they can do the same for you.

Seek out sad art

It might seem strange, but a lot of the music I like to listen to has a melancholy tone. While of course, my happy dance playlist is my go-to for a Friday evening or when doing chores, in more reflective moments, my preferred tunes are songs from The National and Leonard Cohen that sound like dark shadows. I think that this is because those moody tunes help me access feelings that might be harder to express. Music reaches into our sad places, and helps us let our emotions out.

Watching a sad movie or reading a tearjerker of a book can do the same thing. In a post called “Let it out” that I wrote in February of last year, ironically just a couple of weeks before Covid first hit the US, I shared a tweet from writer Chuck Wendig that suggests watching the animated movie Coco as a way to process grief. Visual arts and poetry can also stir the emotions and help provide a kind of catharsis. Mark Rothko’s paintings get me every time.

You might think that this is “cheating.” Am I really feeling my feelings if I’m crying over a cartoon skeleton with a guitar? But the truth is that sometimes it’s hard to feel our sadness directly. If art can help us access some of those feelings through harmony or allegory, we can experience a kind of catharsis that gives us some relief.

What I love about Helen’s suggestions is that they offer a range of tools for dealing with difficult feelings. While not all of these will be available or appropriate in every situation, having options will hopefully help us navigate our sadness better. We can’t eliminate sadness from our lives, but we can find better ways to move through it, heal our wounds, and ultimately, find more joy.

For more ways to manage difficult emotions, check out Helen Russell’s excellent book How to be Sad.

Image: Larm Rmah via Unsplash

December 18th, 2021


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    Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Judy on December 19, 2021

    Great article, thanks!

  2. Mags on December 24, 2021

    Thank you for this beautiful article. It resonated deeply with me, as often with your writing. I will definitely read the book you recommend.

  3. Charlie on December 26, 2021

    Absolutely agree about the music – when I’m feeling low but not really sad, I listen to the Smiths and gain comfort from the fact that I’m not that miserable, and when I feel really down, I listen to Gene, and Martin Rossiter and embrace my sadness.

  4. Kathryn Metzger on January 12, 2022

    Great, insightful article. I am such a fan of your work!


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