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Sadness – an essential human emotion

December 13, 2011

“Why be miserable? …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 began Jessica Marshall in the New Scientist a couple of years ago. But are drugs a good answer? she continued. Apparently not.  “A growing number of cautionary voices from the world of mental health research …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.” (p36)

“‘When you find something this deeply in us biologically, you presume that it was selected because it had some advantage, otherwise we wouldn’t be 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 (2007)” (p36)

“Hard evidence for the importance of sadness in humans is difficult to come by, but 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. An ape that doesn’t obviously slink off after it loses status may be seen as continuing to challenge the dominant ape – and that could be fatal.  Wakefield believes that in humans sadness has a further function: it helps us learn from our mistakes. “I think that one of the functions of intense negative emotions is to stop our normal functioning, to make us focus on something else for a while,” he says. It might act as a psychological deterrent to prevent us from making those mistakes in the first place. The risk of sadness may deter us from being too cavalier in relationships or with other things we value, for example.

What’s more, says Paul Keedwell, a psychiatrist at Cardiff University in the UK, even full-blown depression may save us from the effects of long-term stress.” (p36)

I found this really interesting… anyway … it made me wonder:

How is sadness represented in literature for young adults?

How is it used?

How is it ‘resolved’?

Does it serve a purpose? 



Who gets sad? When? Why? 

Who ‘helps’ and how? Are there clear roles around sadness (our own and someone else’s)?

Ref: (emphases mine) Jessica Marshall (2009) ‘Woes be gone’ New Scientist 17th January; pp36+ (it’s available online – but at a price if you aren’t already a subscriber…)


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