What is Sadness?
Sadness is one of the seven universal emotions experienced by everyone around the world resulting from the loss of someone or something important. What causes us sadness varies greatly based on personal and cultural notions of loss. While sadness is often considered a “negative” emotion, it serves an important role in signaling a need to receive help or comfort.
Sadness describes the range, or family, of emotional states we can experience containing everything from mild disappointment to extreme despair and anguish.
Sadness can also be experienced along with other emotions, such as:
- Anger (e.g., having a loved one abandon you)
- Fear (e.g., that we will not be able to cope or move on with life)
- Joy (e.g., reminiscing about time spent with the lost person or thing; pleasure from the comfort provided by others)
What makes us sad
The universal trigger for sadness is the loss of a valued person or object, though this can vary greatly between individuals based on their personal definitions of value and loss.
Common sadness triggers:
- Rejection by a friend or lover
- Endings and goodbyes
- Sickness or death of a loved one
- The loss of some aspect of identity (e.g., during times of transition at home, work, life stages)
- Being disappointed by an unexpected outcome (e.g., not receiving a raise at work when you expected it)
Moods and disorders
The key difference between mood and emotion is duration, or how long it lasts. Sadness is one of the longer-lasting emotions and often cycles through periods of protest, resignation, and helplessness. It’s important to note, however, that sadness is different from depression, which is a common but serious psychological disorder described by recurrent, persistent, and intense feelings of sadness and hopelessness that interfere with daily living.
Facial expression of sadness
One very strong and reliable sign of sadness is the angling-up of the inner corners of the eyebrows. Few people are able to manipulate these muscles voluntarily, making it especially difficult to fake (unlike some other facial movements).
Vocal expression of sadness
Depending on the type and intensity of sadness, someone’s voice can either become lower in pitch and softer in volume, or higher in pitch and louder in volume (e.g., wailing).
Sensations of sadness
Common sensations include tightness of the chest, heaviness of the limbs, stinging in the throat, and/or watery eyes.
Posture of sadness
There is often a loss of muscle tone, a lowered or hunched posture, and looking away and/or downwards.
The function of sadness
The universal function of sadness is to, in some way, signal for help. This can be a signal to others saying that we need comforting, or to ourselves to take some time and recoup from our loss.
Responding to sadness in ourselves
Some people can derive pleasure from their sadness and may even seek out experiences that evoke sadness for a cathartic effect. Others, however, have an extreme aversion to sadness and may go to great lengths to avoid situations which they believe may trigger the emotion. This may even cause some to avoid attachment or commitment since it could leave them vulnerable to loss and sadness.
Responding to sadness in others
Knowing how someone is feeling doesn’t necessarily mean we want to acknowledge it -it depends on the context and the relationship. In some situations, simply acknowledging that you are sorry for another person’s loss might be helpful, whereas for others it may not be.
Spotting sadness when it is subtle tells you that something important is happening or has happened, that it involves loss, and that this person probably needs some form of comforting. The expression itself, however, doesn’t tell you whether you are the right person to give that comforting, or if this is the right time to offer it.
Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.
Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.
Introduce the world of emotions to children in a fun way with Dr. Ekman's official guide to Disney•Pixar's Inside Out.