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A detail of the 1672 sculpture Entombment of Christ, showing Mary Magdalene crying.

Sadness is emotional pain associated with, or characterized by feelings of disadvantage, loss, despair, helplessness and sorrow. An individual experiencing sadness may become quiet or lethargic, and withdraw themselves from others. Crying is often an indication of sadness.[1] Sadness is one of the "six basic emotions" described by Paul Ekman, along with happiness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust.[2] Sadness can be viewed as a temporary lowering of mood, whereas depression is more chronic.[citation needed]

In childhood[edit]

Sadness is a common experience in childhood. Acknowledging such emotions can make it easier for families to address more serious emotional problems,[3] although some families may have a (conscious or unconscious) rule that sadness is "not allowed".[4] Robin Skynner has suggested that this may cause problems when "screened-off emotion isn't available to us when we need it... the loss of sadness makes us a bit manic".[5]

Sadness is part of the normal process of the child separating from an early symbiosis with the mother and becoming more independent. Every time a child separates just a tiny bit more, he or she will have to cope with a small loss. Skynner suggests that if the mother cannot bear this and "dashes right in to relieve the child's distress every single time he shows any... the child is not getting a chance to learn how to cope with sadness'".[6] Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton argues that "trying to jostle or joke out of a sad mood is devaluing to her"[7] and Selma Fraiberg suggests that it is important respecting a child's right to experience a loss fully and deeply.[8]

Margaret Mahler believes that sadness requires "a great deal of strength" to bear, and that a child in self-protection may develop "hyperactivity or an early defensive activity against awareness of the painful affect of sadness".[9] This is why D. W. Winnicott suggests that "when your infant shows that he can cry from sadness you can infer that he has travelled a long way in the development of his feelings....some people think that sad crying is one of the main roots of the more valuable kind of music".[10]


According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, sadness was found to be associated with "increases in bilateral activity within the vicinity of the middle and posterior temporal cortex, lateral cerebellum, cerebellar vermis, midbrain, putamen, and caudate."[11] Jose V. Pardo has his M.D and Ph.D and leads a research program in cognitive neuroscience. Using positron emission tomography (PET) Pardo and his colleagues were able to provoke sadness among seven normal men and women by asking them to think about sad things. They observed increased brain activity in the bilateral inferior and orbitofrontal cortex. [12] In a study that induced sadness in subjects by showing emotional film clips, the feeling was correlated with significant increases in regional brain activity, especially in the prefrontal cortex, in the region called Brodmann's area 9, and the thalamus. A significant increase in activity was also observed in the bilateral anterior temporal structures.[13]

Coping mechanisms[edit]

A sad adolescent

Daniel Goleman says that "the single mood people generally put most effort into shaking is sadness...Unfortunately, some of the strategies most often resorted to can backfire, leaving people feeling worse than before. One such strategy is simply staying alone."[14] Ruminating, and "drowning one's sorrows", may also be counterproductive. Being attentive and patient with sadness is one way for people to learn through solitude.[15] Goleman suggests two more positive alternatives which have been recommended by cognitive therapy. "One is to learn to challenge the thoughts at the center of rumination and think of more positive alternatives. The other is to purposely schedule pleasant, distracting events".[16]

Object relations theory by contrast stresses the utility of staying with sadness: 'it's got to be conveyed to the person that it's all right for him to have the sad feelings' – easiest done perhaps 'where emotional support is offered to help them begin to feel the sadness'.[17] Such an approach is fuelled by the underlying belief that 'the capacity to bear loss wholeheartedly, without pushing the experience away, essential to being truly alive and engaged with the world'.[18]

When some individuals feel sad, they may exclude themselves, in doing so they take time to recover from this feeling. People deal with sadness in different ways, and it is an important emotion because it helps to motivate people to deal with their situation. Some coping mechanism could include: creating a list, getting support from others, spending time with a pet or engaging in something to express sadness such as dance. [19]

Pupil empathy[edit]

Pupil size may be an indicator of sadness. A sad facial expressions with small pupils is judge to be more intensely sad as the pupil size decreases. A person's own pupil size also mirrors this and becomes smaller when viewing sad faces with small pupils. No parallel effect exists when people look at neutral, happy or angry expressions.[20] The greater degree to which a person's pupils mirror another predicts a person's greater score on empathy.[21] However, in disorders such as autism and psychopathy facial expressions that represent sadness may be subtle, which may show a need for a more non-linguistic situation to affect their level of empathy.[21]

Cultural explorations[edit]

During the Renaissance, "Edmund Spenser's high estimation of sadness renders it as a badge of sort for the spiritually elect...this endorsement of sadness"[22] in The Fairie Queene.

In The Lord of the Rings, Treebeard is described as having "a sad look in his eyes, sad but not unhappy".[23] This may be linked to the way "an early meaning of 'sad' is 'settled, determined'", exemplifying "Tolkien's theses that determination should survive the worst that can happen".[24]

Julia Kristeva considered that 'a diversification of moods, variety in sadness, refinement in sorrow or mourning are the imprint of a humanity that is surely not triumphant but subtle, ready to fight and creative'.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jellesma F.C., & Vingerhoets A.J.J.M. (2012). Sex Roles (Vol. 67, Iss. 7, pp. 412-421). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer
  2. ^ Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (London 1996) p. 271
  3. ^ T. Berry Brazleton, To Listen to a Child (1992) p. 46 and p. 48
  4. ^ Masman, Karen (2010). The Uses of Sadness: Why Feeling Sad Is No Reason Not to Be Happy. Allen & Unwin. p. 8. ISBN 9781741757576. 
  5. ^ Skynner/Cleese, p. 33 and p. 36
  6. ^ Skynner/Cleese, p. 158–9
  7. ^ Brazleton, p. 52
  8. ^ Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (New York 1987) p. 274
  9. ^ M. Mahler et al, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant (London 1975) p. 92
  10. ^ D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Penguin 1973) p. 64
  11. ^ Ahern, G.L., Davidson, R.J., Lane, R.D., Reiman, E.M., Schwartz, G.E. (1997). Neuroanatomical Correlates of Happiness, Sadness, and Disgust. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 926-933.
  12. ^ Pardo JV, Pardo PJ, Raichle ME: Neural correlates of self-in- duced dysphoria. Am J Psychiatry 1993; 150:713–719
  13. ^ George MS, Ketter TA, Parekh PI, Horowitz B, Herscovitch P, Post RM: Brain activity during transient sadness and happiness in healthy women. Am J Psychiatry 1995; 152:341–351
  14. ^ Goleman, p. 69–70
  15. ^ Aliki Barnstone New England Review (1990-) , Vol. 21, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), p. 19
  16. ^ Goleman, p. 72
  17. ^ Skynner/Cleese, p. 164
  18. ^ Michael Parsons, The Dove that Returns, the Dove that Vanishes (London 2000) p. 4
  19. ^ "Feeling Sad", Kids Help Phone, November 2010
  20. ^ Harrison NA, Singer T, Rotshtein P, Dolan RJ, Critchley HD (June 2006). "Pupillary contagion: central mechanisms engaged in sadness processing". Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 1 (1): 5–17. doi:10.1093/scan/nsl006. PMC 1716019. PMID 17186063. 
  21. ^ a b Harrison NA, Wilson CE, Critchley HD (November 2007). "Processing of observed pupil size modulates perception of sadness and predicts empathy". Emotion 7 (4): 724–9. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.7.4.724. PMID 18039039. 
  22. ^ Douglas Trevor, The Poetics of Melancholy in early modern England (Cambridge 2004) p. 48
  23. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London 1991) p. 475
  24. ^ T. A Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth (London 1992) p. 143
  25. ^ Quoted in Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994) p. 87

Further reading[edit]