The Core of Melancholy: What Purpose Does Sadness Serve?

Published by Srijoni Sircar on

The purpose of Sadness


Sadness is an unpleasant emotion that one would like to avoid at all costs. Yet, human beings are fascinated by sadness. From ballads describing heartbreak to tear-jerkers which are a hit at the box office, why do people continually gravitate towards sadness? Perhaps this is because, in the context of art, sadness may be processed differently than in a day-to-day context when one is not directly involved.

In a 2008 study, Zentner et al. noted that although people frequently experienced a wide range of emotions in their everyday life, such emotions were rarely roused when listening to music. Participants rarely reported feeling emotions, especially negative ones such as sad feelings, in response to music but would instead express them as properties of the music they were listening to. However, the question here is to understand sadness as one experiences it in their daily life. Negative moods are unpleasant, so why do people still experience them, and do they, in any way, positively impact their lives?

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Understanding Melancholy

Before the refined (and somewhat more complicated) system of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), classifying mental disorders was fairly straightforward. In the age of Humoralism, mental illnesses were defined according to the balance (or rather, imbalance) of bodily fluids (or humours) in the body, namely: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm.

According to Hippocratic medicine, blood was associated with a sanguine nature. Such people were friendly; they joked around and had rose-tinted cheeks and bodies. An abundance of yellow bile indicated choleric nature; such people had yellow-tinted skin. They were frequently described to be daring, ambitious, and short-tempered.

Phlegmatic nature was associated with an abundance of phlegm. However, this phlegm is described as a pituitary secretion and is much different from the phlegm as people understand it today. A phlegmatic nature was described as being reserved, low spirited and physical attributes included having white hair.

Finally, those with an abundance of black bile were described to have a melancholic nature. The word melancholy itself is derived from the Greek word for black bile, which is Melania kholé. A melancholy nature was described by words like “laziness”, “fearful”, and a sickly nature. Melancholic people were described to have black hair and black eyes. Excess black bile was said to lead to several illnesses, such as depression and cancer.

Where Are The Roots of Melancholy?

The experience of melancholy is a by-product of the human condition. At some point in their lives, every individual has felt that sad feeling, blue, despondent, and many other words that could describe this emotion. Experiencing a low mood is not a pathological condition unless it persists for long periods.

A true understanding of melancholy involves the study of psychology, anthropology, and more importantly, literature. Emotions can only be truly understood through cross-cultural studies or through the careful analysis of prose and poetry. Understanding human emotion requires an understanding of human beings, which is not confined to just one field of study.

A distinctive feature of melancholy is its reflective nature. Unlike other emotions, melancholy is not an immediate response to a situation. Rather, it involves reflection and contemplation, giving it a dual-core; it has some positive as well as negative aspects to it. Perhaps, this duality is the reason why artists, musicians and authors strive to capture it in works of art.

It isn’t just the glum poses depicted in Renaissance paintings; the depiction of negative moods dates as far back as first-century BC, in the bronze age, as depicted in the suicide of Ajax vase. Thus, philosophers, psychologists, and artists strive to understand what melancholy is and why it is part and parcel of the human experience.

Is Sadness a Medical Condition?

The sad feeling we feel has often been conflated with depression, but with at least 43% of Indians dealing with depression, this is a common false assumption. Sadness is a human emotion that everyone experiences in their lives at one point. For example, a bad grade in an exam, loss of a job, or simply having a bad day can make one feel ‘blue’ or down in the dumps.

However, temporary sad feelings are different from clinical depression. Clinical depression is a mental health disorder that can affect people of any age. Depression is a real condition that can alter attitudes and behaviour and is characterised by specific symptoms which go beyond feeling sad. Sad feelings do not stay in our lives for long intervals. These sad feelings are often an instantaneous response to a sudden situation. The effects of negative emotions are endless but their nature is short-lived.

What is the Difference Between Sadness and Depression?

Psychologists continue to study depression to understand the way this medical condition can be treated. A person suffering from depression may experience physical symptoms, such as body pain, headaches, digestive disorders, or cramps. All in all, depression can have both emotional and physical symptoms that ultimately affect how a person thinks, feels and behaves, such as thoughts of death.

Symptoms of depression may also differ for different people. Common symptoms of depression include:

  • Hopeless outlook on life
  • Feelings of intense sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Increased fatigue and sleep problems
  • Back pain or headaches
  • Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration
  • Restlessness
  • Digestive disorders
  • Overeating or loss of appetite 
  • Suicidal thoughts or thoughts of death
  • Mood disorder or severe mood
  • Substance use or substance abuse
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • A general lack of interest 

Understanding Defense and Defects

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No matter where you’re from, people rarely think of sadness as a valuable quality. Yet, if sadness did not become a negative aspect of human lives, there wouldn’t be a billion-dollar self-help industry. A thriving industry that highlights the importance of positive thinking and attitude and the elimination of sad feelings. Today one can even easily find an online course that trains people to overcome recurring sad feelings. The courses are structured in a way that approaches sadness as if it is a problem that needs solving. From talk therapy and CBT to community resources and social support groups, people subscribe to a range of solutions. The market for solutions to overcome depression, or sometimes, sad feelings are rising exponentially. 

But if sadness isn’t helpful, wouldn’t evolution have taken care of it? In fact, most people will consistently experience such feelings of sadness throughout their lives.

The Role Played by Sadness

Often, the effects of negative emotions in a person’s life can be related to critical defence or coping mechanisms. For example, anxiety is crucial to help people avoid dangerous or stressful situations; without it, we may end up in a less-than-ideal situation that would threaten our well-being. Effects of negative emotions often come into the way of our daily lives, but whether the impact will be positive or negative depends from situation to situation.

It seems that even negative emotions have some benefits for us. Instead, it would be accurate to say that negative emotions can act as defence or coping mechanisms. A positive effect of negative emotion is that it allows us to be more alert. But the problem arises when they become defects rather than defence. Anxiety is helpful in certain situations. It helps in keeping people out of harm’s way, but not when it keeps one from engaging in social situations.

Sadness may be helpful in certain situations (and research has certainly shown that sad feelings can be useful in some cases). However, the moment it starts affecting the quality of life, it can pose a threat to your overall well-being.

Can Sadness be Helpful?

Picture depicting the emotion of solitude or need for isolation that comes due to sadness
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When thinking about the usefulness of emotions, it is easy to understand how positive ones can help human beings. For example, happiness motivates people to take specific actions, increased motivation propels them to complete a task. The feeling of accomplishment ensures that all tasks reach their end goal the right way. But, there’s not much which can turn into a discussion about sadness.

In fact, wouldn’t sadness be seen as maladaptive? Sadness puts people in a low mood where they do not have the motivation to do anything, whether seeking new activities or completing tasks at hand.

However, when scouring the literature on emotions or simply asking people to name emotions, it is evident that negative emotions far outweigh the good ones. One possible explanation for this may be that human beings only encounter a few ‘good’ possibilities in life. On the other hand, encountering dangerous situations is much easier. For example, a robbery, running late for a meeting or encountering heartbreak on any given day, but their chances of winning the lottery are only one in almost fourteen million.

It seems, then, that evolution has got it right in some cases. Perhaps, human beings do need to experience their fair share of negative emotions to ensure overall well-being. Evolution has made sure that humans experience the effects of negative emotions to understand life better.

Allocation of Resources Model

Human beings have limited resources at any point; hence, people need to allocate these resources carefully to ensure a successful outcome. The Allocation of Resources hypothesis suggests that mood indicators help people decide where they should invest their resources. One of the effects of negative emotions is helping people to prioritise what they have.

For example, a high mood leads people to allocate resources to beneficial activities, while a low mood drives people away. Why is allocation of resources important? When you observe your daily activities, there are specific tasks that you must complete every day. For example, one needs to eat, work, shower, and even clean the house.

Deciding which task to complete first is difficult when all of them seem equally important. In this instance, mood indicators can help guide your decision and pick the task that is the most important at that moment. Thus sadness is an important emotion because it helps to motivate people to deal with their situation.

Adapting to Social Positions

Yet another hypothesis for the effects of negative emotions is they assist individuals to adapt to their social positions. For example, when you’re ‘born to be a leader, finding yourself in a dominant social position will lift your mood. If not, the person may withdraw or work hard to gain the social position that they desire. As Lazarus (1991) points out, sadness does not inspire any action tendency. Rather, it does the exact opposite and leads to withdrawal or inaction.

Sadness as a Tool for Communication

An alternate hypothesis suggests that sadness may be helpful as it serves as a mode of communication. Similar to infants’ cries, sadness may serve as a cry for help or need for assistance. While there is some merit to this theory, if sadness was just a mode of communication, it would exclusively occur in public. But, as many are quick to point out, this is usually not the case. People can feel sad whether they’re in public or the sanctity of their home.

When Can We Benefit from Sadness?

Feeling sad
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So, it seems that sadness can be useful in some cases, but are there any benefits of negative moods? Research suggests that sadness can help us in many ways. Let’s find out a little bit more.

Sadness Leads to Improved Memory

Though most would like to think that their memory is rock-solid, the reality is quite different. Memory is a fickle thing, and it quite easily falls under the manipulation trap. In a series of experiments, Loftus (1979) found that accurate recollection can easily suffer from compromises by using misleading information. Interestingly, several experiments have found that a positive effect of negative emotions is improvement in memory accuracy and preventing the incorporation of false or misleading information.

Reduced Gullibility, Increased Scepticism

Forgas and East (2008b) demonstrated that a negative mood could help reduce gullibility. Sad participants were not only better at detecting urban myths and deceptive targets, but they were also less likely to accept facial expressions to be genuine.

Keep in mind that a negative mood only increases scepticism; it doesn’t have a say on accuracy. Another solid effect of negative emotions is that they push individuals to observe and base their decisions on solid facts or observations rather than assumptions.

Better Interpersonal Relationships

As surprising as it may sound, negative moods can actually be beneficial to your interpersonal relationships. One might term this ironic, but the effect of negative emotions on building relationships can be positive at times.

Forgas (1995, 2002) suggests that those who are in negative moods are more likely to engage in polite and attentive interpersonal strategies. He suggests that a negative mood primes access to a more careful and cautious interpretation of the current environment and prevents people from making hasty judgments.

Motivational Ability

Surprisingly, research has found that a negative mood has motivational benefits.

Goldenberg and Forgas (2012) arranged an experiment based on the Hedonistic Discounting Theory. In the experiment, participants had to engage in a cognitively demanding task for as long as they liked. The results showed that those in a low or sad mood persevered longer than participants in a positive or happy mood. Participants in a low or sad mood answered more questions correctly and continued with the task much longer.

Thus, the results supported the hypothesis that negative mood increases the perceived hedonistic value of future tasks and achievement, which motivated participants to persevere longer, though the task was demanding.

Making Fair Decisions

Tan and Forgas (2010) conducted experiments to determine the effect of mood on fairness. Participants either came: ‘happy’ allocators or ‘sad’ allocators. Allocators then had to divide a scarce resource among the group members across multiple trials. As the trials progressed, the researchers found that happy allocators were more selfish than sad allocators, and the effects were more pronounced as the trials progressed.

On the basis of this experiment, researchers concluded that sad allocators took longer to make fair decisions, had increased concern for others, and were more concerned with fairness than sad allocators.

Better at Persuasion

Evidently, a negative mood leads to individuals processing information more carefully, which helps them improve their interpersonal skills. Not only this, but it also helps them build persuasive arguments as well.

In an experiment, happy and sad participants put forth their views through argumentative essays supporting or criticising a controversial topic. On careful analysis, Forgas (2007) found that sad individuals were much more likely to produce persuasive and concrete information. Those in a low mood presented their argument with tangible information, which alluded to a more accommodating and careful processing style.

Later, the arguments presented by sad participants successfully produced a real change in attitude among other participants as well.

Making Better Judgements

Judgement is not only contingent upon the information that an individual receives but also on the way they process that information. The judgement also has room for influence on the basis of personal biases. Like any other aspect of human behaviour, judgement has its fallacies as well.

Way back in 1946, Asch noticed the primacy effect, which led to biased judgements. In this case, individuals tend to place disproportionate importance on the information which is present to them on the first basis.

Judgement can suffer from compromises due to impression formation. The Halo effect plays an important role in skewing judgements in accordance with initial impressions. Halo effects occur when a relation between good-looking individuals and desirable qualities occurs. Another instance of the Halo effect is the assumption of higher experience in older people than their younger counterparts.

Fundamental attribution error occurs when individuals place more emphasis on the intentions rather than the environmental factors when making judgements about others’ actions. It is, perhaps, the most common inferential bias that individuals have when it comes to making judgements about others.

Impact of Negative Moods on The Ability to Form a Judgement

Over the years, several researchers have tried to understand the effect of mood on these judgement fallacies. As mentioned earlier, those in a negative or low mood tend to have an accommodating processing style. Hence, it comes as no surprise that most research concludes that negative moods tend to have a beneficial effect in eliminating these biases.

Nickel, Asbeck, and Fiedler (1991) concluded that those in a negative mood tend to reduce the effects of impression formation bias, as well as prevent the incorporation of subsequent irrelevant information post first impression. On the other hand, a happy mood tends to make individuals more vulnerable to judgement fallacies, such as experiencing an influence by the appearance of others.

Evidently, despite the universal emphasis on positive moods, it seems that they are not always beneficial. As suggested by evolutionary models, negative mood or affect has some adaptive functioning in an individual’s life, which helps them deal with various situations.

Why Should We Understand Sadness?

Sadness is not just a negative emotion; rather, it seems that it may have some purpose in people’s lives. Understanding how sadness can be helpful is crucial to ensure proper psychological treatment or emotional support. If sadness always comes under the category of a defect rather than a useful quality, ensuring proper psychological treatment would be difficult. After all, sadness is a dominant emotion in the human psyche, and misunderstanding it can have negative consequences.

When an understanding forms about the beneficial characteristics of sadness, it can help mental health professionals understand that perhaps these negative emotions that cause emotional pain are necessary for a person’s survival. A readiness to low mood doesn’t have to signify physical or psychological defects. In some cases, it may be a necessity to help an individual survive in their environment.


Changing the lens on how people view sadness may also be necessary to help them deal with their situation. When people start to see the positive effects of sadness, they are less likely to blame themselves or think that something is wrong with them. People can, thus, benefit by learning the positive aspects of negative emotions.

Upon careful observation, we realise that sadness is more than just a low mood or negative emotion. It can help people in many ways, especially when viewed as an adaptive function rather than a hindrance to daily life. This article is simply a reminder that while some emotions may be harmful, they fulfil a purpose to help our overall well-being, and as such, we should also be aware of a positive outlook regarding the same.



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