What is Sadness?

Tears are tasteless by Megyarsh, on Flickr

What does it mean to be "sad?"

Is sadness the opposite of happiness? Clinicians, do you have a real definition? It seems ridiculous, but I’m not entirely sure I know.

During some quiet time, my wife and I were sharing answers to a few of the questions I’d read while flipping through the Love Maps app from the Gottman Institute.

The question for me was, “What was your partner’s happiest moment?”

That one was a easy – our wedding day. If you saw the smile on her face that day, the choice was obvious. Her face literally hurt at the end of the day. We talked about why that day made her happy. She talked about feelings of love, joy, accomplishment, and even relief. Like I say, an obvious choice.

But then the obvious discussion point coming back to me was “What was the saddest day in your life?”

“Hmmm… It depends on what you mean by sad,” was my reply. “Is sad the opposite of happy? I’ve felt misunderstood, hurt, frustrated, lonely, anxious, left-out, pained, and have even felt feelings of loss – occasionally in combination. Would my saddest moment just be one of those moments or is ‘sad’ something different? I’m not sure I’ve ever felt just plain ‘sad.'”

So my question is, by definition is “sad” in reality a combination of other emotions or is it something unto itself? e.g. If I am lonely am I a kind of sad, or is it possible to be lonely and sad.

Ya, some days I think too much. 😉 I look forward to reading your comments.


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About Dr. Rebecca Jorgensen

Becca works with couples to save and strength their relationship. She trains psychologists to do couple therapy internationally. She is a: Professional psychologist. PhD. in Clinical Psychology. Licensed Mental Health Counselor Research Faculty at Alliant International University. Director of the Training and Research Institute for Emotionally Focused Therapy. Certified Emotionally Focused Therapy Supervisor and Trainer.

8 thoughts on “What is Sadness?

  1. Being sad is void. You are feeling a void in your life that you feel may not get filled. To me it is a combination of emotions and is one of the little treasures we get in life so that we learn how to be happy and cherish the times we are happy and fulfilled.

  2. Sadness is the consequence of unmet needs, disappointment or loss. The seeds of “sadness” can be planted in our earliest experiences with parents/primary caregivers via quality of attachment but can grow by other experiences throughout life. I’ve experienced many people who feel “just plain sad” in my practice – many of them have felt this way as far back as they can remember.

    Sadness and happiness are both not only feelings but a felt sense in the body. Imagine the physical posture of a sad person; head and shoulders down…vs a happy person with shoulders back and head up. Feelings are very connected to our brain and nervous system (think about fear and the “fight or flight” response).

    My “two cents…”

    Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT
    The Toolbox at http://www.LisaKiftTherapy.com
    Tools for Marriage, Relationship and Emotional Health

    • Thanks Lisa. Intrigued by your characterization of sadness as a “consequence” and felt emotion.

      Curious, do we “feel” lonely or do we feel sad? The novel writer in me is curious. 🙂

  3. Sad.

    So many descriptors come to mind! It’s one of our primary emotions, tender and vulnerable. It often moves us to seek comfort, and/or moves others toward comforting us. The expression that goes with the feeling is universal. It varies in intensity. It is state not trait, meaning it is temporary or situational. Depression (with has an element of sadness) is ongoing.

    Like most emotions *sad* comes to us on a continuum and we have a range of descriptive words including: down, blue, low, lonely, lonesome, melancholy, sorry, sorrowful, grieving, heart-broken, despairing, disappointed, discouraged…

    At the core it’s about loss. Paul Eckman uses this to describe the universal facial expression that goes with *sad* – the response that goes with the death of a healthy child.

    It is a state of loss or difficulty, and is the opposite of happy. It slows everything down, our; mental processing, responses, energy, talkativeness, and enthusiasm. It tends to color our judgement. While we’re in the sad state we’re tend to use more negative judgement.

    As far as your question about lonely and sad – yes – we can be sad and lonely. It’s very common to have mixed feelings. Sad reflecting loss. Lonely conveying missing or longing for someone.

    Wow – okay – now we all need a big hug, a focused moment on our gratitude list and to do some jumping jacks so we get reset for gladness! =)

  4. Does sadness exist?

    Fascinating question, simple answer.

    Sadness does not exist as a substantiative thing on its own, it’s merely the absence of happiness, that’s it. Problem is we pesky humans apply a duality to stuff and complicate everything.

    Does space exist? Does cold exist? Does dark exist? Does death exist? No, none of them do, they are merely labels used to describe the absence of something; in each case – matter, heat, light and life respectively. When we want to make a room dark, we don’t turn up the dark, we turn down the light.

    Here are some dictionary explanations:

    Sad: Affected by unhappiness (absence of happiness), characterized by sorrow.
    Sorrow: An affliction caused by loss, disappointment, grief etc.
    Affliction: A state of mental or physical pain or distress.
    Loss: State of being deprived of or of being without something that one has had (and still desires)
    Disappointed: To fail to fulfil the expectations or wishes of…
    Grief: Strong mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.
    Regret: to feel sorrow or remorse for (an act, fault, disappointment, etc.)
    Remorse: A deep and painful regret.

    So the bigger question is “What is happiness?” What is the light we can turn on when we’re lost in the dark?

    Some descriptions include:

    Happiness: Being in a state of pleasure, contentment, and/or joy.
    Pleasure: A feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment
    Enjoyment: Taking pleasure in an activity or occasion (loops into pleasure).
    Content: Satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting, expecting or needing more or anything else.
    Joy: the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying.
    Delight: a high degree of satisfaction, pleasure, enjoyment or joy.
    Good: satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree

    What we find here in these expositions is that the root of every expression for happiness includes contentment/satisfaction and that sadness is the absence of such, first rooted in unfulfilled desires and expectations but then manifesting as different kinds of mental anguish depending on our perception of events. When we don’t get what we want, get what we don’t want or lose what we have we are first and foremost dissatisfied, but this becomes animated in, and described in, a million ways.

    The only way to remain in a state of stability is to modify our expectations, develop durable patience and graceful acceptance. This is achieved by making efforts to increase our awareness of the true nature of reality. Once our perceptions are aligned with this reality we can accept, under the laws of classical and quantum physics, all things as impermanent (changing moment to moment) and interdependently brought about by a complex multitude of related causes & conditions.

    Once properly understood we can accept death as not the opposite of life, merely the absence of it in material form. Of course we can miss someone, but the devastation is mitigated by accepting that our material form is finite and this is because that is.

    When our expectations are not exaggerated in order to remain congruent to our ego’s inflated needs, when we become aware that material worldly things do not possess inherent qualities that bring about happiness in and of themselves, that they only provide temporary satisfaction and in most cases increase our craving for more of the things that will leave us empty, we begin to let go of the grasping and work towards renunciation of the things that aren’t able to fill the void.

    As we increase the light of awareness and shine it on the true nature of things, we begin to see and accept life as it really is and the darkness of grasping craving lustful desire for unrealistic outcomes disappears, leaving only satisfaction.

    More dictionary elucidations:

    Satisfy: to fulfil the desires, expectations, needs, or demands of (a person, the mind etc)
    1. To bring about the completion or achievement of (a desire, promise, etc)
    2. To carry out or execute (a request, etc)
    3. To conform with or satisfy (regulations, demands, etc)
    4. To finish or reach the end of: he fulfilled his prison sentence.
    5. FULFIL ONESELF: to achieve one’s potential or desires.
    Potential: Capable of being or becoming.
    Desire: A longing or craving for something that (we think) brings satisfaction or enjoyment.

    Someone once said “I want happiness”. The response was, remove the ‘I’ for this is ego, remove the ‘want’ for this is desire, and all you’re left with is happiness. Not a truer word has been spoken.

    So ultimately true, lasting, happiness or inner-peace can only be found by:
    1. Realising that all things (even mental formations) are not as they appear, that they are interdependent and don’t inherently or intrinsically posses the qualities we think they do from their own side.
    2. Ending our craving desire for such things that in reality don’t possess the ability to deliver us lasting satisfaction.
    3. Seeing the fact that everything we desire (absence of affliction/distress = peace) is already right here within us, that satisfaction IS walking the path to realising #1 and renouncing #2.

    If one sees their potential as one totally absent of dissatisfaction (happy) and works towards this cause, then everything one does is satisfying in its own nature as it is its own means to its own end and not derived from something separate to oneself. By creating this loop one becomes self-sufficient in generating one’s own happiness in perpetuity.

    “Service to a just cause rewards the worker with more real happiness and satisfaction than any other venture of life.”
    ~Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947),

    Attaining happiness by laying down desire is the most noble of causes…

    I hope my contribution goes some way towards answering your question.

    • Hmmm… Got a little off topic & metaphysical, but lots to think about. Thanks Mark.
      I can’t say I agree with your initial premise that sadness is merely a lack of happiness. I don’t think the brain chemistry research would match that, but I will double check that to be sure. Thanks for planting that thought.



      PS Off topic, when discussing happiness, I also see a very large difference between joy and satisfaction. It’s an interesting philosophical discussion.

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