We often think that feeling sadness is purely negative. However, sad people also deep thinkers who demonstrate great strengths.
The list of creative geniuses who have suffered sadness and depression indicates that there may be some useful function to feeling sad. From politicians to poets, comedians to scientists, many of our great thinkers have often been sad people.
They include the politicians Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln; the poets Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke; the thinkers Michel Foucault, William James, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer; and the writers Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Leo Tolstoy, and Tennessee Williams.
The benefits of sadness and depression
So what might the benefits of sadness and depression be that lead to these great people achieving so much?
Depression and sadness are often viewed as purely negative. However, sadness has a role to play in our lives. Sadness is often a natural and healthy way of dealing with difficult situations. In addition, sad people often think very deeply and are more accurate at complex tasks.
Dr. Paul Andrews says that
“Depression has long been seen as nothing but a problem. We are asking whether it may actually be a natural adaptation that the brain uses to tackle certain problems.”
Sad or depressed people spend a lot of time thinking about the problem they are experiencing. This can be a practical problem or a social one. Because they spend so much time thinking they tend to shun social interactions and even sleep and eat less well, which are symptoms used to diagnose depression.
The upside of over-thinking
However, this analytical rumination – going over and over problems to the exclusion of everything else– could serve a useful function.
When sad people ruminate they are trying to solve the problems, working our possible solutions and the costs and benefits of each of these options. This takes time and energy, which is why depressed people may not find it easy to work or socialize. They tend to shut down some of their other functions in order to focus all their energy on the problem in hand.
While this is often considered a problem, it might actually be beneficial. Studies have shown that over thinking or ‘ruminating’ can actually help people recover from depression.
Sadness as a natural part of healing
It is natural to feel sad when faced with difficult circumstances such as illness, the breakdown of a relationship or bereavement. Those who analyze these feeling rather than repressing them may work through their grief and disappointment more quickly than those who try to repress or deny their difficult emotions.
We often deny feelings of sadness. However, allowing these feelings is often a part of the process of healing. Sad people know that they need to experience a full range of emotions and not block their less comfortable feelings. Often when we try to block negative feelings we end up dulling all our emotions. This can lead to feeling dead inside and eventually to serious depression.
Sad people are in touch with their emotions and because they allow themselves to feel sadness, they can also feel great joy.
Sadness and depression as a mental adaptation
It is also possible that just as physical pain is our body’s way of calling our attention to a problem that needs fixing, mental pain might be our minds way of calling attention to an emotional problem that requires attention. Taking time out to focus on this emotional issue prevents further damage, allow us to remove ourselves from distressing situations and can help us to avoid rash decisions.
Further benefits of sadness and depression
Studies have also found that depressed people have other skills including:
- Processing information more deeply.
- Being more accurate at complex tasks.
- Making better judgments on detail-oriented information.
- Completing more accurate cost-benefit analyses.
Sometimes, sadness and depression allow us to step outside of our humdrum lives and see the bigger picture. At times, optimism and positivity are not what is required. Instead, we need to take the time to really analyze our situation and re-evaluate in order to move forward.
As Marcel Proust, said,
‘Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.’