Why do we feel sad?

Here I’m not asking what makes you sad. Rather I’m asking, what is the purpose of sadness? Generally speaking, there is an evolutionary reason for all the abilities and faculties that we humans possess. So what is the evolutionary advantage of sadness?

Obviously, I don’t know the answer. But I have two guesses.

First, sadness may be a by-product of some evolutionary trait. Perhaps it’s a by-product of empathy. Empathy clearly gives us a survival advantage, as it helps us to form groups or teams, rather than live as individuals. So sadness could simply be an inevitable consequence of our ability to empathise with the feelings of others.

Or it might be like hunger. The feeling of hunger drives us to look for food, and to eat as much as we can when we find it. That’s not always so helpful in a world filled with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King, but in our natural hunter-gatherer state, it was vital. So sadness might be a feeling that drives us towards doing good and fixing problems, so we feel happy instead.

I’d like to introduce some anecdotal evidence that may help to answer the question: sad songs.

Yes, whether it’s Shubert’s Winterreise or Adele singling Hello, we all love sad songs.

But why on earth would we want to be made to feel sad? It must satisfy some emotional need inside us. I suggest that it makes us feel empathetic towards others. By feeling sad for a protagonist who suffers, we feel good about ourselves for caring. It boosts our feeling of belonging to a group.

Therefore, I propose that sadness is a necessary by-product of empathy, and is the price that we pay for living as a group. It would follow that solitary creatures like bears and skunks don’t feel sad. Have you ever seen a sad skunk? Discuss.

Any thoughts? Come on, don’t leave me all on my own here, feeling sad and foolish.

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33 responses to “Why do we feel sad?

  1. Maybe sadness is part of a coping mechanism. For me, a good cry can be a cathartic experience. It gives me a way to release pain or anxiety that I’ve kept pent up inside. Sometimes if life just isn’t going my way, I’ll seek out sad movies or sad music because they give me that feeling of release.

  2. The evolutionary angles you (and James Pailly) hypothesize sound like good accounts for the phenomenon. I suspect we can access it from other (non-evolutionary) angles as well. Here’s an existential take. The two framing drives of the life principle are the drive to live the most robust life possible and the opposite drive toward oblivion (the death-wish as it’s sometimes called). We have a powerful urge to throw ourselves into the sturm und drang of life and a powerful urge to remove ourselves from all that sturm und drang. The second takes the form of nostalgia for pre-conscious oblivion. Call it the sadness principle. (These are the framing drives; many more specific drives may interact to produce all sorts of variants of joy and sadness.)

    • Do you think animals feel sadness in the same way? Have you ever seen a beetle with a death wish or a cat with depression? Just asking.

      • Good question. My hunch is yes, animals feel the same way. I’m sure you’ll grant the drive to survive. So I see no reason why they shouldn’t feel the opposite pull as well. (In fact, it seems counterintuitive that they would NOT have the same balance of forces as is manifest in our life drive.) With domestic pets, mood changes are fairly easy to detect. I suspect all living beings have their days when they feel an instinct to retract — some variation of sadness played out on alien (to us) planes of consciousness.

  3. Comedy must have its tragedy; every metric has its polarities.

    I can’t say if sadness (or happiness for that matter) has an evolutionary purpose per se. Perhaps emotions are simply one of the effects of our pursuit of instinctual drives/desires (water, food, shelter, sex, status – i.e. survival and procreation), with emotions serving as a sort of metric to signal us as to how we are doing with the survival and procreation thing.

    Perhaps an excess of sadness has the evolutionary purpose of challenging us to adjust our courses of action (including attitude and environment) in ways which are more beneficial to our survival and procreation. The most adaptable, in the challenge of extreme emotions, theoretically makes for a stronger species.

    Someone once told me disappointment (sadness) requires adequate planning (forming desires). The stronger our desires, the more we risk the sadness of disappointment. This is why I still find the Buddha’s recipe for individual freedom (Nirvana) from desire and suffering both obvious and appropriate (practically, not religiously).

    Great question, Steve! Many thanks!

    • Nice to see you on Steve’s blog, Chris 🙂

    • Hi Chris, welcome to the blog! Sadness as a signal of how well we are doing often feels to me like how it is. In that sense, it’s a by-product of desire, as you say. But if we eliminate sadness by removing desire (which is kind of paradoxical as it suggests a desire to remove sadness) do we make ourselves unfit to survive? Do we fail to build, plan, procreate or even eat?

      • A well-played follow-up, sir! Freedom from desire and suffering is not the same as “removing desire” to “eliminate sadness.” Our animal urges and instincts are ever-present, part of our very nature, and can never be removed or eliminated while we live. But they can be tempered, moderated, mastered by intellectual effort and practice. We can gain relative freedom from the emotional extremes associated with the fulfillment or frustration of urges and instincts.

        The Buddha famously called his teaching The Middle Way, I suppose meaning that we can use our intellects to steer our desires and fears onto more moderate paths. This steering is done almost entirely through the use of intellectual perspective, recalling always that we are not alone in our joy or sadness, that all other living things are bound to the same instinctual courses and to the same end.

        I would say this middle way actually makes us more efficient, more resilient, more adaptable from an evolutionary standpoint. When we desire less, we are more likely to use less. When we are less sad or fearful, we are more likely to act with magnanimity.

        P.S. To Gary: Very glad to be here!

        • Freedom from desire I can definitely relate to. “Bind yourself and you shall be forever free,” it was once said, on the subject of using self-discipline to achieve goals in life.

          I always have difficulty with all this Middle Way Buddha business, as I am a very goal-driven type of person. It’s why I blog, for one thing. I have trouble understanding why Buddhists even get out of bed in the morning. But Stoicism I like. It’s like a toolkit for dealing with the inevitable failures that come with trying to get things done.

          Evolution has given us a very crude carrot/stick set of impulses, almost as if nature doesn’t trust us to make the right choices in life. “Eat, you idiot!” it tells us. “Now go and have sex!” “Now go to sleep!” It’s a very basic toolkit for survival, and culture allows us to get so much more out of life.

  4. I agree, although I’d expand it a bit.

    Sadness, it seems to me, is a byproduct of useful impulses, such as the impulse to protect loved ones. In evolutionary terms, the impulse to help and protect those with whom we share genes. It can be hijacked to make us feel empathy for those who aren’t similar to us genetically. This is both good and necessary for large scale societies to form.

    But you can also be sad when you’re hungry and unable to eat, or cold but unable to get warm, etc.

    I think sadness is simply an impulse like this that is frustrated. There being scant evolutionary advantage to cutting off the impulse once we know that it can’t be satisfied, it lingers. We call these unsatisfiable impulses “sadness.”

    • So you’re saying it arises from a variety of different inputs and isn’t so much a single phenomenon as a mixed bag of feelings and thoughts?

      The impulse to help and protect family members might better be expressed as fear or anxiety – sadness or regret seems to be what we are left with if we fail to protect them. Do you think it provides us with any kind of evolutionary advantage at all?

      • I think a “mixed bag of feelings and thoughts” is a good way to refer to a lot of emotional instincts. One of the problems with labeling emotions is that the label often applies to disparate cognitive impulses that we lump together (such as “sadness”), or make distinctions between the same impulse in different circumstances or intensities.

        Decades ago, when my mother was seriously ill, I was in a state of anxiety and fear of losing her, sick with worry. After she died, that fear didn’t go away. For several days afterward, I would describe my state as being one of prolonged flight-or-fight high adrenaline, sick with grief. We call my state after her death “grief”, but it’s not entirely clear to me that it was distinctly different from what it was before (although the intensity was much higher). In both cases, I had an overwhelming desire to fix the situation, even though I intellectually knew afterward that fixing was forever impossible. What changed were the circumstances.

        No evolutionary advantage at all? I’ve learned to be cautious about these categorizations. Emotions, it seems to me, are adaptive to the extent they influence future actions. The memory of sadness and regret certainly influences my actions. In that sense, sadness may have some advantage, at least in a species intelligent enough to model future paths to minimize the chance of future sadness.

        • You’re right that sadness is a collection of different mental and emotional states. Grief is one example, and is supposed to progress through several identifiable phases. Sadness can be for oneself, or for others, or for the state of the world itself. It often has a cathartic effect, much like anger.

        • The stages of grief is an interesting point. If you think about it, it’s basically the process of coming to terms with a situation that we will not be able to fix, allowing our mind and body to gradually come down from the flight-or-fight response, to disengage from instincts that are no longer in our or our loved one’s best interests anymore.

          Anyone who’s ever gone through it knows it’s an agonizing process. That’s probably why it so often gets diverted into things like vengeance or advocacy, as a way to pseudo-fix the situation as best as possible.

  5. Have I ever seen a sad skunk?? I think I’ve been fortunate and haven’t seen any living skunks.

  6. I think sadness may also be a by-product of love, as in when we lose someone we love.. whatever it is, we wouldn’t know happy without sad and I like happy. ❤
    Diana xo

  7. What a fascinating question. I believe that sadness, like grief, anger and fear are temporary emotions that have evolved to allow us to identify and avoid unpleasant or life threatening situations – and hopefully learn from them (adapt). This is of course a very simplistic and generalised explanation and I’m sure the argument is far more complex and convoluted when considering the impact of society and the world we live in.

    I certainly believe that animals experience emotions, including sadness. One just has to see the displacement behaviours (such as the continuous rocking back & forth or pacing) exhibited by many animals in captivity, or the grieving/ protective/ anger behaviours exhibited by many animals in the wild.

    I’m not a physicist Steve… (But I know you are)… Perhaps Newtons Laws can be applied to emotion & behaviour … Everything needs to be balanced… Yin & yang…

    • I tend to agree with you that even negative emotions like grief and anger help us to survive in a hostile world. But I think it must be a fine balance. Grief and sadness can easily tip over into depression, and anger leads to suffering, as anyone who follows the teachings of Yoda will know. I think that much of what we do with ethics, morality, law, religion, etc is geared to modifying and controlling these basic survival impulses so that we can live better lives in the modern world.

      I still don’t know why we seek out and derive pleasure from sad songs and films though.

      • Perhaps the pleasure we get from sad songs or tragedy in theater and film comes from a recognition of our fellowship with all humanity; we are all adrift on the sea of life. Fellow-feeling is a major releaser of dopamine.

        Shakespeare seems to have known this. Leadbelly does too.

  8. Your guests have explored the territory very well (Likes to all!) and I agree with the general consensus: Sadness is a part of the human condition, and it does have value.

    I think of it as a tension between my perception of what is versus what ought to be. The Yang to the Yin of happiness. (And I agree very much that, without both, either one alone is meaningless.)

    As an emotion, it’s at least partly chemical, and it’s an interesting question to what degree intellect even plays a role. Is there a logic to sadness (or happiness)?

    It’s possible to feel sad, neutral, or even happy, about the same situation depending on your emotional mood. The way we feel better after a good cry seems to indicate chemistry plays a big role here.

    As such, some may love sad songs and stories merely for their chemical high.

    Or because it’s similar to having a good cry — in getting extra double-plus sad, their own sadness is mitigated.

  9. I just watched the latest Pixar film, Inside Out… in view of this post, I definitely recommend seeing it for the role Sadness plays in the plot!

    Don’t take the film too seriously, some of it is awfully silly, but it does make some cogent observations about emotions, and it has a few really cute bits,

    Be sure to watch all the way to the end for the dog and cat bit. 😀

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