Is it really bad to be sad?

“…Misery is inconvenient, unpleasant, and in a society where personal happiness is prized above all else, there is little tolerance for wallowing in despair. Especially now we’ve got drugs for it. …So it’s no surprise that more and more people are taking them.

But is this really such a good idea? A growing number of cautionary voices from the world of mental health research are saying it isn’t. They fear that the increasing tendency to treat normal sadness as if it were a disease is playing fast and loose with a crucial part of our biology. Sadness, they argue, serves an evolutionary purpose – and if we lose it, we lose out.

“When you find something this deeply in us biologically, you presume that it was selected because it had some advantage, otherwise we wouldn’t have been burdened with it,” says Jerome Wakefield, a clinical social worker at New York University and co-author of The Loss of Sadness: How psychiatry transformed normal sorrow into depressive disorder (with Allan Horwitz, Oxford University Press, 2007). “We’re fooling around with part of our biological make-up.”

Perhaps, then, it is time to embrace our miserable side. Yet many psychiatrists insist not. Sadness has a nasty habit of turning into depression, they warn. Even when people are sad for good reason, they should be allowed to take drugs to make themselves feel better if that’s what they want.

So who is right? Is sadness something we can live without or is it a crucial part of the human condition?

…there are lots of ideas about why our propensity to feel sad might have evolved. It may be a self-protection strategy, as it seems to be among other primates that show signs of sadness. …it helps us learn from our mistakes. …even full-blown depression may save us from the effects of long-term stress. Without taking time out to reflect, he says, “you might stay in a state of chronic stress until you’re exhausted or dead”. …By acting sad, we tell other community members that we need support….Then there is the notion that creativity is connected to dark moods. …There is also evidence that too much happiness can be bad for your career…” (More)

via New Scientist.

Posting articles on this theme is, readers may have noticed, a recurrent event here on FmH. I began to be introduced to this notion, that depression might serve a useful purpose and that we had to rethink our knee-jerk readiness to vanquish it (and normal sadness as well, which is difficult to disentangle from pathological depression) whenever we encountered it, early in my career. I think it has fundamentally informed my skepticism about the way we organize and administer psychiatric services in this society. In addition, there are concerns that too readily resorting to antidepressant therapy may reinforce future propensity for depressive reactions and need for medication (which I’m sure will please the pharmaceutical industry to hear). I have always said that getting people off of medications, or refraining from prescribing them, are equally important functions of a psychopharmacologist as is prescribing astutely.

2 comments

  1. julia

    So many things of beauty (including happiness?) spring from sadness, alone. I say, Leave Sadness Alone!

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  2. Charles

    Most of the greatest works of 19th century artists, poets, dramatists, and composers are the result of depression and other negative psychological states (i.e. the Romantic movement). Is the modern approach going to deprive us of similar works?

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