IN our pursuit of happiness, we’ve become scared of ever feeling sad.
Yet it could hugely improve our lives, says writer and author Helen Russell.
“Hope you’re OK!”, the message pinged up on my phone. I wasn’t. Not really. In the midst of a global pandemic, none of us have been. Even for a nation famed for its stiff upper lip, the last year has been challenging. We’ve felt fear, anger, despair – and sadness. Only most of us aren’t good at being sad. We tend to push it away, bury it or ignore it altogether.
Having spent the past eight years researching and writing about happiness worldwide, I discovered that many people are so obsessed with the pursuit of “happy” that they’re phobic of feeling sad. I’d speak to people who had just lost loved ones, or been made redundant, or had a bad break-up, who were desperate to feel happy.
But sadness is what we’re supposed to feel after a loss – and sorrow is the sane response when sad things happen. Experts at the University of New South Wales have found that accepting and allowing for temporary sadness can actually be good for us – improving our attention to detail, increasing perseverance, promoting generosity and reducing bias. Even crying serves a purpose, reducing levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Sadness is normal – it’s the temporary emotion that we all feel on occasions when we’ve been hurt or something is wrong in our lives. While depression is a chronic mental illness that needs help, sadness can be awakening. It’s a message that can tell us what’s wrong and what to do about it – if we listen.
So I started listening. I tracked down experts from the worlds of psychology, neuroscience, genetics, anthropology, nutrition and fitness to find out more about how to be sad, well. Here are a few of the lessons I learned.
Don’t Fight It
Suppressing negative or depressive thoughts, to the extent that many of us probably do on a daily basis, has been proven to backfire spectacularly, resulting in depressive symptoms.
One study from the University of California, Berkeley, found that those who tried to avoid their negative feelings or judged themselves harshly for feeling bad were more likely to report mood disorders and distress – whereas people who accepted their emotions felt better.
We’ve all seen headlines saying “happy” people are healthier – but this isn’t the whole story.
Because in cultures where being sad is seen as OK, sadness has far less of a negative impact on health. So being sad only actually makes us ill if we’re terrified of that sadness.
Lower Your Expectations
Most of us have had a tough time lately. We’re not WFH, we’re at home in a crisis trying to work. Possibly with added caring responsibilities, a reduced income and none of the support systems we usually rely on. It’s a global pandemic and it’s worth cutting ourselves some slack.
We may not have baked banana bread, mastered sourdough or composed a requiem during lockdown – but that’s OK. Comparing ourselves on social media helps nobody and none of us should be aiming for an “Insta-perfect” life, since perfectionist tendencies have been linked to depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, OCD, PTSD, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, and early death.
Get Some Rest
We may feel as though there’s a never-ending inbox/to-do list/laundry mountain to tackle, but the world doesn’t seem half so bad when we’re well rested.
A few extra Zzz can reduce stress, improve our mood, strengthen relationships, make us more productive and even more successful.
The “no pain, no gain” 10,000 hours theory – whereby it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something, as popularised in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers – is based on research by the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson. He studied violinists at Berlin’s Academy of Music and found that the best performers had all totalled 10,000 hours of practice each.
But a lesser-reported part of his research found that even though the best students worked harder, they also slept more. They became really (really) good at something not just because they put the hours in, but because they were better rested. Overtime: 0. Power naps: 1!
In most cultures, people only say sorry if they’ve done something wrong, but we do things a bit differently here! Research by YouGov found that Brits say sorry 15 times for every 10 American apologies, while another study found the average Brit says sorry eight times a day.
The word has been in use in one form or another since Anglo-Saxon times, but today, we say sorry for feeling. When we need support most of all, many of us are ashamed and apologise for our emotions. So I’m calling it: “sorry not sorry”. Apologise if you’ve done something wrong – but not for being sad.
Be more selfless
If you’re sad and you just “do you”, chances are you’ll still be sad. Once you’re rested and restored, you need to step up – for other people as well as yourself.
Years of research showed me that people who were sad “well” all did something for someone else on a regular basis “Helper’s high” and “warm glow giving” are bona fide scientific concepts that have been around since the ’80s – whereby helping others makes us feel better.
MRI scans show that our brains literally light up, glowing with the pleasure of giving to others. We all know, deep down, that looking out for one another is the right thing, whether it’s delivering groceries to neighbours, volunteering, donating, or having a friendly chat to someone who’s missing their family.
So, get on it with your good deeds. Because if the past year taught us anything, it’s that we’re in this together – and we can get happier by learning to be sad, better.
An internet meme went around at the start of the first lockdown suggesting that in times of isolation, we turn to food, alcohol or exercise as a crutch (“chunk”, “drunk” or “hunk”). There’s a strong link between feeling a lack of connection and addiction and if we’re uncomfortable with our negative emotions, we’re more prone to numbing our feelings by indulging in excesses or deprivation.
Instead, we need to look after ourselves when we’re sad: eating well and staying moderately active even on days we don’t feel like it. Studies show we can manage low moods with light exercise and, according to research by the leading expert in mood and psychology, Dr Brendon Stubbs, just 20 minutes walking a day gives us a 30% reduced risk of depression.
What we eat matters too, and sticking to a Mediterranean diet has been shown to help improve depressive symptoms (irritability, fatigue, anxiety or loss of interest). Next time you’re at the supermarket, stock up on fish, fruit, veg, beans and pulses, nuts and grains.
- How To Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned About Getting Happier By Being Sad, Better by Helen Russell (£14.99, 4th Estate).
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