The Comforting Side of Sadness: Understanding Why We Sometimes Find Safety in Sorrow.

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There was a time when sadness was fashionable, which is something difficult to imagine nowadays, given our current cultural reliance on mandatory positivity and happiness. The time was the beginning of the 19th century and the term coined to describe this affectation was mal du si├Ęcle (sickness of the new century).

I call it affectation because it was, at least to a certain extent, a pose that some French young people adopted to signal their dissatisfaction with the world. The Germans had their own word for this phenomenon, which, being German, also had deep philosophical connotations. This period of cultural addiction to sadness, melancholy, and tragedy (which contrasts so starkly with our own), gave birth to the Romantic Movement and all its heavy music and gothic dramas.

The success of the Romantic Movement demonstrates that sadness can be seductive. I commented in a recent post on how pop songs are getting sadder, a dissonant note in an otherwise solidly positive cultural landscape. Perhaps we are starting to rediscover the lure of melancholy.

Source: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay

Source: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay

Accustomed to Being Sad

At an individual level, it has been argued that some of us may become accustomed to being sad, to the point that we may even find comfort in that position. This is because, some believe, being sad feels familiar and safe, whereas extracting joy from our existence demands effort and commitment and always involves a level of risk. Others point out that a person with low self-esteem will inevitably believe that sadness is all they deserve.

In fact, research has shown that sadness, which is of course a time-limited normal emotion, can turn into actual depression as a result of avoidance behavior, which blocks access to lost positive reinforcers. In other words, a sad state of mind, while unpleasant, may in some circumstances feel less threatening than processing the consequences of a loss, or the trauma that triggered the sadness in the first place, but this persistent sadness can then become a depressive illness. Avoidance is at the core of anxiety and depression, not only as a consequence of these disorders but also as a perpetuating cause.

Undoubtedly, there is an element of choice in the psychological attitudes we adopt in life, and there is no doubt either that we can get stuck in a rut (in this case, the rut of sadness) and then find it difficult to get out of it. If you think this applies to you, then a period of therapy may help recalibrate your attitudes and support your efforts to shake off that melancholy.


It is important however to make it clear that persistent sadness is a symptom of a depressive illness and not a mere personal choice. Most people don’t choose to feel sad in order to avoid embracing life and all its challenges. We shouldn’t trivialize the torment of depression by implying that the suffering is somehow the fault of the sufferer. A depressive illness needs to be recognized as such and then treated vigorously.

If you are feeling sad all the time, or much of the time, then you may need professional help. You certainly don’t need to be told that you are “addicted to sadness” and that you should pull yourself together. It would be unkind, but it would also be unhelpful.

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