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Home » All, Health, Pathway 1 "Pleasure", Positive Feelings, Three Branches, Three Pathways, _1 Positive Experiences

Positivity of Sadness

By on January 19, 2010 – 9:58 am  14 Comments

Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.

Timothy's articles are here and here.



Joe Forgas

Joe Forgas

The emphasis of positive psychology on building the best things in life and making people’s lives fulfilling does not imply that we should ignore problems or dismiss the negative emotions that people experience. Positive psychology can make an additional contribution by offering rigorous and creative scientific work on how negative emotions can be good for humans. In this article, I kick an ongoing discussion of the benefits of negative emotions by introducing some insightful experiments conducted by Joe Forgas, an Australian psychologist.

‘All emotions have adaptive benefits.’ Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

Considerable research by scholars such as Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, has demonstrated that our emotions (both negative and positive) influence our judgments and memories. However, while most research talks about how we should overcome sadness to make better judgments, why don’t we look into how sadness can be beneficial? Research by Forgas suggests that sadness can be beneficial at individual level and interpersonal levels, at least in four ways. 

Sadness draws better attention

In series of research studies, Forgas asked customers of a gift shop how many out-of-place items they could remember. For better manipulation of participants’ mood, data was collected on seven sunny days and seven miserable cloudy days, while joyful music was played on the sunny days and grey music played on cloudy days. Forgas found that a slight variation in mood would affect shoppers’ attention and recall of objects and yes, sadness beats happiness. On the gloomy days, shoppers were likely to report themselves a little sadder, while they also tended to recall what was on the shop counter more accurately. This extra attention might also act as a psychological deterrent from making mistakes.

 

Sadness leads to more convincing persuasions

Forgas has conducted other research with happy and sad volunteers making persuasive arguments for or against certain policies. Their arguments were then rated by independent undergraduate students and scientists. Sad participants tended to produce more convincing arguments in more concrete and systematic styles. With other variables controlled, this research suggested that the attention to new information in the outside world when people are sad would promote more concrete and factual thinking and result in generating more persuasive messages.

Sadness reduces stereotypes

The previous studies examine how sadness might benefit us at individual level. But what about at an interpersonal level? How do our moods affect our social responses? Forgas conducted a research study in which participants had to play a video game and shoot the characters that had guns in their hands. Some of the images were made to look Muslim. Participants were more likely to shoot the Muslim targets. However, this bias was reduced among people with negative moods. This suggested that negative moods lessen people’s tendency to rely on simple stereotypes. “When you are sad, you pay more attention to new information in the outside world,” German Psychologist Herbert Bless explains. “We call this being accommodative.”

Sadness facilitates new social interactions

What would you do when you meet a new group of people and feel like you are in an out-group? This could happen in a freshman orientation camp or when one newly joins a company. Most people would feel a bit down or upset. Sadness can be a signal that we are not getting on or being accepted. Forgas’s research indicates that sadness makes us pay more attention to things around us, be more convincing and alert, and care more about information within the group such as what everybody in the group says. If we could make use of this trend, perhaps we could find easier ways to interact with people as we meet them, helping us better assimilate into a group.

 

Rainbow after Storm

Rainbow after Storm

Conclusion

Instead of simply quoting sayings like “what does not kill me, makes me stronger” to indicate that sadness can make sufferers better able to cope with life’s challenges and spur them to greater achievements, I prefer to adapt scientific findings to show solidly how sadness could actually be good for us.

Positive psychology is NOT a simply quest for happiness. Yes, none of us would want to be sad, but it is very normal to be upset after losing a job, breaking up a relationship, or experiencing the death of a loved one. Instead of eliminating sadness, what positive psychology offers is the science to prevent these negative feelings from turning into conditions such as serious depression. Through evidence-based results, positive psychology shows what we can do to become more resilient, and like the research examined above, it shows us also how we can wisely appreciate the beneficial facet of negative emotions, to embrace them as integral, useful, positive parts of our selves.
 


 

Reference

Black, J (2002), Darwin in the world of emotions, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 95 (6): 311–3

Forgas, J.P. (2007). When sad is better than happy: Negative affect can improve the quality and effectiveness of persuasive messages and social influence strategies. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 513-528.

Forgas, J.P. Goldenberg, L. & Unkelbach, C. (2009). Can bad weather improve your memory? A field study of mood effects on memory in a real-life setting. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 54, 254-257.

Unkelbach, C., Forgas, J.P. & Denson, T. (2007). The turban effect: The influence of Muslim headgear and induced affect on subliminal aggressive responses in the shooter’s bias paradigm.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 513–528.

Images
A change of scenery courtesy of kevindooley
Sad at Disneyland courtesy of Photos by Mavis
Halfway by Nicholas_T

14 Comments »

  • Although Anthony Robbins is not a psychologist, he is an avid student of NLP and of people. I like his take on emotions, both negative and positive. He points out that we need to acknowledge and appreciate our emotions, knowing they support us. We need to get curious about what the emotion is offering us, get confident that we can successfully manage this emotion, as we have before. We can problem-solve, or we can just recognize and accept, in the spirit of mindfulness.

  • Annemarie Grahl says:

    Interesting – although this research seems to contradict Frederickson’s Broaden and Build theory. It would be interesting to see a comparison of the two.

  • Jeremy McCarthy says:

    Timothy, great article, especially the conclusion. I agree with Annemarie it would be an interesting topic for a future article to look at this research side by side with Fredrickson and see where they overlap (or contradict).

  • Bob Beale says:

    Thnaks for covering this issue Timothy. May I correct one thing – Joe Forgas is AUSTRALIAN (not Austrian – hey, but we get that all the time). If your readers would like a full account written by Joe, they can find it here:

    http://www.science.unsw.edu.au/news/special-feature-the-upside-of-feeling-down/

  • Many thanks for this Bob! Thanks for your kind reminder on my typo and I have corrected it according. Much appreciate the link as well!

  • I won’t say it contradicts with Frederickson’s research as every emotion has its pros and cons. Research addresses emotions from different angles which enhances our understanding. This makes lots sense to me.

  • Timothy’s conclusion sums it up beautifully when he says “Positive psychology is NOT a simply quest for happiness…. Instead of eliminating sadness, what positive psychology offers is the science to prevent these negative feelings from turning into conditions such as serious depression.” Well put!

  • the boy from oz says:

    Timothy, I suspect the challenges arise when we start judging emotions from a meta perspective eg ” I shouldn’t be sad – I should be happy”. Unfortunately PP’s very existence promotes this.

    I guess that’s why I like mindfulness which focuses on acceptance. Strange that PP overlooks this

  • czander says:

    I’m a retired professor on Medicare. The other day I received a mailing offering me supplemental medical insurance for free from United Health. I called and spoke with a friendly women and I quickly discovered that is wasn’t free at all. My co pays would dramatically increase and things that are now covered like physical rehab which is vital to me would no longer be covered. I was told I could have hearing coverage with a $500 deductible. I told the woman the following: “You are mistaken, it is not free you can’t tell old people it’s free and then nickel and dime them into poverty.”
    She replied, “I’m doing my job that’s all and it’s free.”
    Me “But its not, how can you do this?”
    She “Sir I am doing my job”
    Me “You are getting your bosses rich by lying. Do you know who your CEO is?”
    She ‘No”
    Me “His name is Helmsley and he makes $53,000 per hour, not per year, per hour. Probably more than you make a year.”
    She “You are too negative I like to be positive that’s what they teach me here and it’s all good”.
    Me” OK you’re right let’s be positive. Helmsley deserves his $53,000 an hour and you are thankful he has given you a job and maybe a career and he deserves every penny and you must applaud him for the good work he does for you and all the old people and if we can’t read the fine print its our fault..”
    She “Go f—k yourself.” She hung up
    Moral—Sometimes it’s just impossible to be positive and good to get angry

  • Jeremy McCarthy says:

    Timothy, I was prepared to say (as you did) that this is not contradictory to Barbara Fredrickson’s work. After all, her recommended ratio of positive to negative emotions is 3 to 1 (not 3 to zero) so clearly she believes that negative emotions such as sadness are also an important part of life and flourishing. However, the section on social interactions does seem to directly contradict Fredrickson’s work. For example “Forgas’s research indicates that sadness makes us pay more attention to things around us” seems to butt up against Fredrickson’s research and theories which suggest that positive emotion open us up to the people and things around us, and sadness causes us to withdraw and seek solitude or solace.

  • Dave Shearon says:

    Thanks, Timothy. The “better at noticing details and spotting errors” aspect of sadness or being slightly “down” crops up in other emotional intelligence research. However, as “the boy from oz” notes, we rarely see comparisons to a calm or mindful state in research, whether on “positive” or “negative” emotions. In thinking about the lives of our ancestors over millions of years during which our mental/emotional makeups evolved, it strikes me that mindfulness/calm may have been MUCH more common. Lots of time sitting and watching nature. Regular interaction with only a small group of other humans. Lots of rythmic, repetitive tasks in preparing food and making and mending clothes and tools. In some research, this calm state carries the same benefits to certain abilities as some negative emotional states, but without the downside of weighting the denominator in the broaden-and-build ratio. Just a thought.

  • wj says:

    Dave – it would be interesting to see if calm was more prevalent in the past – I suspect you might be right. Can you point me in the direction of the impact of calmness on cognition – I know after meditation people are more alert – not sure if thats what you mean.

    I think I’ve seen reserach that ackowledges that most measures overlook subtle positive emotions like calm. Certainly the PANAS soes

  • Tracy Todd says:

    I absolutely agree that sometimes one needs to allow yourself to be sad in order to become more resilient. The problem is that society often puts pressure on people who are going through a sad time in their lives to hurry up and get over it to the extent that when you do feel sad you feel as though you are not normal. Many people see me as an inspiration which is a tough pedestal to be on. But I have learned to allow myself time to be sad at times. It is simply impossible to be happy ALL of the time. By allowing myself to cry I have learned that it aids my emotional healing. I find that when I constantly hide behind my smile, for the sake of the world, I take far longer to recover from a sad event in my life.

  • Bob Espo says:

    Tracy, though I am writing this more than a year after you posted your comments, I resonate with your perspective. I do not know what the research would conclude about the human need to experience fully any and all emotions. The teachings on mindfulness, though, invite us to allow what is happening now to be, with awareness and without judging its “rightness.” It seems common sense that living a full life includes experiencing the completeness of what one feels, giving it mindful acceptance, which allows that experience to complete itself and move on so whatever needs to happen next may do so. It also seems that when affect is present but denied or avoided, it interferes with what one is doing instead. Thanks for your add to this interesting conversation.

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