Understanding the Depressive Feeling of Sadness

sadness shown in picture Photograph courtesy of The Jed FoundationOpens in new window

Sadness is an emotional reaction to a perceived loss, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to several hours.

The sad individual may have suffered the death of a loved one, lost a relationship, a job, or a home, or received a low score on an exam. Whether a loss will lead to sadness is a matter of individual interpretation and experience.

Scherer’s (1997) cross-functional study of emotions produced results that led to a better understanding of sadness.

When research participants were asked to describe circumstances under which they felt sadness, participants mentioned that the situations were unpleasant, they conflicted with personal goals, and the losses that occurred were perceived as irrevocable.

Thus sadness is associated with some level of hopelessnessOpens in new window.

Sadness is related to other experiences, such as depression and grief, with sadness being the less complicated reaction.

Many emotional reactions, such as fear and sexual desire, are clearly functional, leading to self-protective or self-promoting behaviors such as escape from danger or mating. Sadness is also presumed to have one or more purposes, although researchers have not agreed on what these may be.

One theory is that sadness, which is associated with low activity level and social withdrawal, allows for self-reflection in the aftermath of loss of an object or person of central importance to the self (Lazarus, 1991). This reflective period allows the individual to change her plans and goals in a way that integrates the loss.

A second theory is that sad behavior (facial expression, posture of sadness, etc.) evokes empathy in others and encourages others to provide help. Therefore an individual becomes sad when he needs assistance, and the signs of sadness may elicit help from others.

Sadness has reliable physiological components. Perhaps counterintuitive, sadness is associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which involves the stress response. For example, with sadness, heart and respiration rates increase and cortisol (a stress hormone) is released (Buss et al., 2003).

Additionally, release of beta endorphin (the body’s natural painkiller) is decreased when an individual experiences sadness. Although ordinary people may feel that they know much about this everyday emotion, it is one of the emotions about which we have the least scientific knowledge.

See Also:
  1. Bonanno, G. A., Goorin, L., & Coifman, K. G. (2008). Sadness and grief. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barret (Eds.). Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 797 – 810). New York: Guilford.
  2. Bonanno, G. A. & Keltner, D. (1997). Facial expressions of emotion and the course of conjugal bereavement. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 126 – 137.
  3. Keltner, D., & Kring, A. (1998). Emotion, social function, and psychopathology. Review of General Psychology, 2, 320 – 342.
  4. Scherer, K. (1997). The role of culture in emotion-antecedent appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 73, 902 – 922.