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.