Home » Society / Culture » In Defence of Sadness

In Defence of Sadness

Of melancholy is a fearful gift; 
What is it but the telescope of truth? 
Which strips the distance of its fantasies, 
And brings life near in utter nakedness, 
Making the cold reality too real! 

Lord Byron, The Dream

“A people who conceive life to be the pursuit of happiness must be chronically unhappy.”

Marshall Sahlins, anthropologist

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

That we are all capable of sustained happiness is a lie. Moreover, it is a lie that makes those whose personalities have never been described as “bubbly” feel guilty for not belonging to Club Happiness.

Who in our society are more hated than the unhappy (“often times we call a man cold when he is only sad,” wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)? After all, in a culture obsessed with happiness, the unhappy are ultimately considered failures. No one wants to be perceived as, or associated with, les misérables. They are such a drag, and who knows, they may be contagious. After all, melancholia, known by its vapid clinical designation “depression,” (William Styron said the word has “a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness […] for over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.”) is classified as a mental disorder, and now they even want to pathologize grief.

When did our obsession with happiness and its seductive step-sister, “positivity,” begin?

Once upon a time, our collective ideal was to be “good,” not happy. Throughout most of humanity’s existence, we were so focused upon questions of survival that we simply didn’t have time to think of such luxuries as happiness. The Ancient Greeks used to say, “Call no man happy until he is dead.”

Were the horrors of the twentieth century simply too much to bear? After humanity experienced the nightmares of world war, genocide, totalitarianism, famine, plague, and economic depression, perhaps its capacity for misery was simply exhausted, and we collectively proclaimed, “Enough is enough. Now, happiness.”

This is understandable. However, this collective determination to be happy mated with our escapist entertainment-based culture to create a Cult of Positivity.

The Cult of Positivity

Unemployed? Single? Poor? “Failing” in some other way? “Positive thinking” is the solution, say the happyists. Motivational speakers talk about the “evil” of negative thoughts, and encourage their peons to expunge “negative people” from their lives, because they are “committed to lose.” Companies force their employees to watch ridiculous self-help DVDs, peddled by snake-oil salesmen, teaching them that positive thinking can bring them health, wealth, and happiness. FedEx, Adobe and IBM are among the many companies that have hired “happiness coaches” to work with employees, and even the U.S. army is incorporating “positive psychology” (which one psychologist calls “saccharine terrorism”) into its training program.

Cancer victims are told they can beat the disease with positive thinking (they can’t), leading patients to blame themselves when their self-treatment of positivity fails.

Creepy happiness movements insist  that “happiness is a decision” (those 121 million people with depression are clearly not “deciding” hard enough).

In the UK, a Happiness Czar was created (perhaps someone noticed that depressed people are less economically productive), and “happiness centres” administering courses of cognitive behavioural therapy have been established. Sounds a little like something out of Brave New World.

President Obama is castigated for being a “pessimist,” while former president Reagan is worshipped as an optimist. Optimistic presidential candidates are more likely to win presidential elections (though the presidents who gave more pessimistic inaugural speeches are more likely to go down in history as being great).

Critical thinkers and writers are derided as being “negative” or “pessimistic,” to the delight of those whose questionable actions they criticize. In being labelled negative, they are equated with being unhappy, and thus as failures. People demand that journalists write happier stories about fluffy kittens to cheer them up. God forbid the news of famine, war, and disease upset the poor first worlders.

As author Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote a book about our cult-like obsession with positivity, writes, “what is truly sinister about the positivity cult is that it seems to reduce our tolerance of other people’s suffering […] creating an empathy deficit that pushes ever more people into a harsh insistence on positivity in others.”

Psychologist Barbara Held, agrees. “The tyranny of the positive attitude lies in its adding insult to injury: If people feel bad about life’s many difficulties and they cannot manage to transcend their pain no matter how hard they try (to learn optimism), they could end up feeling even worse; they could feel guilty or defective for not having the right (positive) attitude, in addition to whatever was ailing them in the first place.” She says that “I believe that we would be better off if we let everyone be themselves — positive, negative, or even somewhere in-between.”

Psychiatrist Andrew Thomson believes that, “as a society, we’ve come to see depression as something that must always be avoided or medicated away. We’ve been so eager to remove the stigma from depression that we’ve ended up stigmatizing sadness.”

Psychotherapist and writer Adam Phillips says that “There is a presumption that there is a weakness in the people who are depressed,” and points out that “The reason that there are so many depressed people is that life is so depressing for many people.” He thinks that happiness is “a cruel demand,” because “happiness and the right to pursue it are sometimes wildly unrealistic as ideals.” He calls this form of thinking “a version of fundamentalism,” and says that “anyone who could maintain a state of happiness, given the state of the world, is living in a delusion.”

Ehrenreich talks about how people in the corporate world are brainwashed into believing that all they have to do to be successful in their career is be positive. This kind of thinking, among other things, helps prevent negative reactions towards mass lay-offs. “What could be cleverer as a way of quelling dissent, than to tell people who are in some kind of trouble – poverty, unemployment, etc. – that it’s all their attitude,” Ehrenreich says. “It’s a brilliant form of social control.”

Ehrenreich talks about the Cult of Positivity

This delusional positive thinking also contributed to the Financial Crisis, when negative voices in finance or real estate were quieted or fired.

Perhaps this unhealthy infatuation with all things positive and happy is a product of our present age, or perhaps they are peculiar to our own culture.

In 1978, while in exile in the United States, the great Russian dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made a commencement speech at Harvard University. In it, he talked about how suffering has led the Russian people to great spiritual development:

“Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive […] Life’s complexity and mortal weight have produced stronger, deeper and more interesting characters than those produced by standardized Western well-being […] After the suffering of decades of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits […]”

Mark Ames, an American who lived and worked as a journalist in Russia for a long time, writes about his first visit to St. Petersburg in 1991, and how liberating it was to not have to be happy all the time:

“They didn’t oppress you with their pod-people smiles and affected self-confidence the way they did in California. In fact, they looked every bit as miserable as I’d felt inside for, oh, as long as I could remember. And yet, oddly, they were so much more alive than, say, the neighbours in our cul-de-sac on Sand Hill Court.”

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote that “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

One can’t help but occasionally feel that, in the West (minus the passionate peoples of the Mediterranean), any display of unbridled passion in a social setting immediately results in shock, terror, and indignation. At the very least it is a substantial faux pas. As author Jonathan Franzen puts it, “anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool.”

The Value of Sadness

No one would ever call happiness a bad thing, but perhaps it is not the only thing. Don’t the emotions at the other side of the spectrum have some value too? Why don’t we value the so-called “negative” emotions? Isn’t our vast spectrum of complex emotions, awarded to us by our uniquely oversized cerebellums, and our capacity for sadness, one of the things which make us human? Many famous thinkers have pointed out how human an emotion sadness is.

John Stuart Mill recognized the value of the full spectrum of human emotions, saying that “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that our suffering is one of the things that make us unique as a species, postulating in The Will to Power that “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” Franz Kafka once wrote in his diary, “I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.”

Jonathan Franzen writes that pain should be embraced because it is “the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.” He believes that “the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.”

Marcel Proust also wrote about embracing pain, but as a way to overcome it. In his In Search of Lost Time he wrote that “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”

“Misery Loves Company” by Open, N.Y.  

Before the Cult took over, sadness was given its due respect. Melancholia has traditionally been associated with genius and creativity. Aristotle stated well over 2,000 years ago that “all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.”

This association of gloom and genius was revived during the Renaissance, leading John Milton to exclaim, in his poem Il Penseroso: “Hail, divinest melancholy/whose saintly visage is too bright/to hit the sense of human sight.” The romantic poets praised suffering as a process which adds insight and depth to a person’s character. As Keats wrote, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”

The Victorians cherished grief, and considered it “a vital component in the cultural arsenal.” Anatole France wrote at the end of the nineteenth century in The Epicure’s Garden that suffering was divine, yet misunderstood, and that “We owe to it all that is good in us, all that gives value to life; we owe to it pity, we owe to it courage, we owe to it all the virtues.”

Indeed, various studies have shown that writers and artists have a much higher rate of depression. Just look at all of the artists and writers who have taken their own lives: Vincent Van Gogh, Jack London, Sergei Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Hart Crane, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Cesare Pavese, Tadeusz Borowski, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Mark Rothko, Paul Celan, Yukio Mishima, Diane Arbus, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Romain Gary, and Primo Levi to name but a few.

Researchers have shown that sadness can actually increase artistic creativity. Other studies have shown that sadness can improve memory, mathematical skills, and observational skills, and that sad people are less likely to stereotype strangers and are better at judging the accuracy of rumours. Psychologists Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy have concluded that “when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people’s perceptions and judgments are often less biased.” Depressed people experience increased activity in their left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain which is responsible for intense focus, and delivers extremely analytical thinking.

Abraham Lincoln, whose “melancholy dripped from him as he walked,” often wept in public, fell into deep depressions for months at a time, constantly thought of suicide, and described himself as “the most miserable man living.” Yet Lincoln’s chronic sadness “spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul” and forged “a spirit of humble determination.” His “hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities,” and his “inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression.” As Lincoln expert Joshua Wolf Shenk opines, “Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”

Adam Phillips talks about the value of unhappiness, as counter-intuitive as it may initially sound. “We don’t talk of the right to be unhappy, when we should. Unhappiness can, after all, among many other things, be the registration of injustice or loss.”

Fyodor Dostoevksy wrote in The Possessed, “Do you understand that along with happiness, in the exact same way and in perfectly equal proportion, man also needs unhappiness?” Jonathan Franzen similarly writes that depression is a “successful adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship,” and that “There is after all a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it’s the right unhappiness.”

Happiness is not a choice. Many psychologists contend that the most important determinant of happiness is a “set point,” a genetic baseline happiness level. The behavioral geneticist David Lykken, after conducting extensive research on twins, concluded that “trying to be happier is like trying to be taller.” Psychology professor and author Jonathan Haidt says that “in the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you,” in regards to how happy you will be. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, though contending that happiness can be increased by a change in lifestyle, acknowledged the impossibility of simply willing our way out of a bad mood. “There is no arguing with a mood; it can be changed by some fortunate event, or by a change in our bodily condition, but it cannot be changed by argument.”

Evolutionary psychologists say that we’re actually “hardwired to emphasize the negative,” for survival purposes. For the last million years or so, “it has made good adaptive sense to be fearful, cautious, [and] timid” because such things as “a sniffle, a graze, or a bad piece of meat,” could have been fatal. Therefore it’s made more sense to prudently assume the worst.


The celebrated American writer and sufferer of severe depression William Styron once wrote that the “veritable howling tempest in the brain” that is depression “is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it,” and that “calling “Chin up!” from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult.”

If it’s true that the severely sad suffer in a way unimaginable to others, and cannot simply “choose” to be happy, then perhaps we should be a little easier on them. If it’s true that sadness is one of the things that makes us human, adds depth to the soul, and helps us appreciate happiness, then perhaps we shouldn’t pejoratively label it as a “negative” emotion. If positivity has become like a cult, then perhaps we shouldn’t automatically assume that everything “positive” is good and everything “negative” is bad.

Van Gogh, At Eternity's Gate

8 thoughts on “In Defence of Sadness

  1. Fascinating article. I really enjoyed both the content and the style in which you presented it.
    Given the nature of the RSA link you posted would you push your conclusion further and posit that an emotion can itself be rendered political? This is to say that one can radically undermine loopholes in politics, such as the financial meltdown which you mentioned, by being realistic. Further, and I’m not sure you agree with this thesis found again in the RSA link, but if the happiness cult is one that is seeking to curry consent (or manufactures consent, to borrow a term from Chomsky) from the majority of citizens then negativity, realism, whatever your term, thus becomes a way to undermine standard politics (Liberal vs. Conservative, and so on).
    I’d be interested in what you’d have to say.

    • Thank you very much for your comment.

      I wouldn’t say an emotion alone can be political, but I would say that positivity and happiness render people on the whole much more passive, almost as though intoxicated. Brave New World is the absolute best demonstration of this phenomenon. If your happy with your situation, then why change anything? Malcolm X said that only when people are angry do they work to change the system.

      But I think we need to distinguish between different kinds of happiness, between healthy and unhealthy happiness. It’s sort of similar to the difference between junk food and healthy food. They both satiate your hunger, and junk food gives you a huge amount of very superficial pleasure for a very short time, but healthy food leaves you feeling more than merely satiated. I think the Greeks had a concept of eudaimonia, which was more than just happiness, but “human flourishing.” I think that’s an absolutely noble goal.

      I don’t think positivity is necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t think negativity is either. I also think both optimism and pessimism are dangerous for anyone genuinely interested in the pursuit of truth because they both imply a bias. But I think by far the most important thing is to be critical, which often gets mistaken for negativity. My favourite quote, from George Bernard Shaw, is “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” I would never call myself liberal, conservative, or anything in between, but I would hazard to call myself a critical thinker. It is what I strive to be, and is far less limiting than subscribing to a dogmatic ideology. But I digress…

      • Ah the Greeks! An interesting tack to take and one seldom taken outside the philosophy (or in my case, political theory) department. An interesting book to read if you’re in to ‘the return to the Greeks’ idea (apart from Nietzsche) is Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Excellent stuff.

        Perhaps Cara will introduce us one of these days (I’m her partner). Till then it will have to suffice to follow your blog. Cheers!

      • I love Arendt, and would like to read that book.

        Thanks again for the comments, and hopefully we’ll meet soon!

    • Shameless plug!

      A little positivity can be good for getting out of a slump, so long as you don’t preach it like an ideology, exaggerate it’s benefits, or discriminate against “negative” people. To each his or her own.

  2. Pingback: GiST Top 5 — Feb. 13, 2012 « the (r)ave

  3. Pingback: An Elegy for Passion | Advokat Dyavola

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