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.


Feeling sadness


Sadness describes the range, or family, of emotional states we can experience containing everything from mild disappointment to extreme despair and anguish.

Source: Atlas of Emotions

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.


For more information about depression, read here.


Recognizing sadness


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.



Additional Resources


Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.


Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with live online and in-person workshops.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


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.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions, the best-seller Emotions Revealed.


Introduce the world of emotions to children in a fun way with Dr. Ekman's official guide to Disney•Pixar's Inside Out.