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What Does Sadness Do for Us?

What Does Sadness Do for Us

It is hard to imagine, especially when we are in the thick of sadness that it could be beneficial to us, yet the research says it is so! Sadness may help us improve our memory, improve our judgment, motivate us, improve our interactions, and promote our generosity.


On gloomy days that produce unpleasant moods research subjects had a significantly better recollection of details of objects they had seen in a shop compared to research subjects that were happy on bright, sunny days.  Interestingly, it seems that positive mood impairs, and negative mood improves attention and memory for incidental details in our environment.


We all are constantly making social judgments, attempting to read social cues in order to understand each other’s thoughts and behaviors. Unfortunately, these judgments may often be wrong, in part because of a number of shortcuts and biases that can lead us astray.

Research shows that people are more likely to make social misjudgments due to biases when they are happy. When happy and sad participants in one study were asked to detect deception in videotaped statements of people accused of theft, participants in negative moods were more likely to make guilty judgments and they were also significantly better at correctly distinguishing between deceptive and truthful suspects.

In another experiment, participants rated the likely truth of 25 true and 25 false general knowledge trivia statements.   Afterward the exercise, they were told if each claim was actually true. Two weeks later, only sad participants were able to correctly distinguish between the true and false claims they had seen previously. Those in happier moods tended to rate all previously seen claims as true, confirming that a happy mood increases—and a sad mood reduces—the tendency to believe that what is familiar is actually true.

Sad moods reduce other common judgmental biases, such as “the fundamental attribution error,” in which people attribute intentionality to others’ behavior while ignoring situational factors.  Sad moods also reduce the “halo effect,” which is assume a person having some positive feature—such as a handsome face—is likely to have positive qualities, such as kindness or intelligence.

The bottom line is that sadness can improve the accuracy of impression formation judgments through a more detailed and attentive thinking style.


When we feel happy, there is no motivation to evolve. Happiness signals to us that we are in a safe, familiar situation, and that little or no effort is needed to change anything.  Sadness, on the other hand, operates like a mild alarm signal, triggering effort to move through challenge transforming it into opportunity!


In situations calling for more cautious, less assertive and more attentive communication style, a sad mood may help. In one research study, participants who first viewed happy or sad films were unexpectedly asked to go and request a file from a person in a neighboring office. Their requests were recorded.  Analyses showed that the sad mood participants used a more polite and elaborate approach, whereas those in a happy mood used a more direct and less polite approach.  In uncertain and unpredictable interpersonal situations, we need to and naturally do pay greater attention to the requirements of the situation to formulate the most appropriate communication strategy.

Sad people are more focused on external cues and do not rely solely on their first impressions, while happy people are more inclined to trust their first impressions.  The bottom line is that sadness increases the ability to read external cues of the situation accurately and respond accordingly.


In research on those with happy versus sad moods, participants in sad moods were observed to give significantly more to others than did happy people.  Additionally, when researchers looked at receivers in the study, they found that those in a sad mood were also more concerned with fairness, and rejected unfair offers more than did those in the happy condition.  In other words, mood may influence selfishness and fairness too.

Final Word

Keep in mind that sadness is not depression and depression is not sadness!

Depression is defined, at least in part, by prolonged and intense periods of sadness, which may be debilitating.

In conclusion the research done on sadness does suggest that mild, temporary states of sadness may actually be beneficial in many aspects of our lives. Perhaps that is why, even though feeling sad can be hard, many of the greatest achievements of Western art, music, and literature explore the landscape of sadness and arise out of sadness.  Also daily, many of us move towards sadness by listening to sad songs, watching sad movies, or reading sad books as a way to connect with our hearts and stimulate creativity.

Evolutionary theory suggests embracing ALL of our emotions is healthy, as each has an important role to play under the right circumstances. So, we may seek ways to increase happiness, don’t stomp out sadness for it may be there for good reasons. The poet Rumi says it best:



This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

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