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For the video game, see Sadness (video game).
"Sad" redirects here. For other uses, see Sad (disambiguation).
A detail of the 1672 sculpture Entombment of Christ, showing Mary Magdalene crying.

Sadness (also called heavy-heartedness) is emotional pain associated with, or characterized by feelings of disadvantage, loss, despair, grief, helplessness, disappointment and sorrow. An individual experiencing sadness may become quiet or lethargic, and withdraw themselves from others. Crying is often an indication of sadness.[1]

Sadness is one of the "six basic emotions" described by Paul Ekman, along with happiness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust.[2]

In childhood

Sadness is a common experience in childhood. Acknowledging such emotions can make it much easier for families to address more serious emotional problems,[3] although some families may have a (conscious or unconscious) rule that sadness is "not allowed".[4] Robin Skynner has suggested that this may cause problems, because with sadness "screened-off" we are left a bit shallow and manic.[5]

Sadness is part of the normal process of the child separating from an early symbiosis with the mother and becoming more independent. Every time a child separates just a tiny bit more, he or she will have to cope with a small loss. If the mother cannot allow the minor distress involved, the child may never learn how to deal with sadness by themselves.[6] Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton argues that too much cheering a child up devalues the emotion of sadness for them;[7] and Selma Fraiberg suggests that it is important to respect a child's right to experience a loss fully and deeply.[8]

Margaret Mahler also saw the ability to feel sadness as an emotional achievement, as opposed for example to warding it off through restless hyperactivity.[9] D. W. Winnicott similarly saw in sad crying the psychological root of valuable musical experiences in later life.[10]


According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, sadness was found to be associated with "increases in bilateral activity within the vicinity of the middle and posterior temporal cortex, lateral cerebellum, cerebellar vermis, midbrain, putamen, and caudate."[11] Jose V. Pardo has his M.D and Ph.D and leads a research program in cognitive neuroscience. Using positron emission tomography (PET) Pardo and his colleagues were able to provoke sadness among seven normal men and women by asking them to think about sad things. They observed increased brain activity in the bilateral inferior and orbitofrontal cortex. [12] In a study that induced sadness in subjects by showing emotional film clips, the feeling was correlated with significant increases in regional brain activity, especially in the prefrontal cortex, in the region called Brodmann's area 9, and the thalamus. A significant increase in activity was also observed in the bilateral anterior temporal structures.[13]

Coping mechanisms

Main article: Coping (psychology)

People deal with sadness in different ways, and it is an important emotion because it helps to motivate people to deal with their situation. Some coping mechanisms could include: creating a list, getting support from others, spending time with a pet or engaging in some activity to express sadness. [14] Some individuals, when feeling sad, may exclude themselves from a social setting, so as to take the time to recover from the feeling.

While being one of the moods people most want to shake, sadness can sometimes be perpetuated by the very coping strategies chosen, such as ruminating, "drowning one's sorrows", or permanently isolating oneself.[15] As alternative ways of coping with sadness to the above, cognitive behavioral therapy suggests instead either challenging one's negative thoughts, or scheduling some positive event as a distraction.[16]

Being attentive to, and patient with, one's sadness may also be a way for people to learn through solitude;[17] while emotional support to help people stay with their sadness can be further helpful.[18] Such an approach is fueled by the underlying belief that loss (when felt wholeheartedly) can lead to a new sense of aliveness, and to a re-engagement with the outside world.[19]

Pupil empathy

Pupil size may be an indicator of sadness. A sad facial expression with small pupils is judged to be more intensely sad as the pupil size decreases. A person's own pupil size also mirrors this and becomes smaller when viewing sad faces with small pupils. No parallel effect exists when people look at neutral, happy or angry expressions.[20] The greater degree to which a person's pupils mirror another predicts a person's greater score on empathy.[21] However, in disorders such as autism and psychopathy facial expressions that represent sadness may be subtle, which may show a need for a more non-linguistic situation to affect their level of empathy.[21]

Cultural explorations

Lost in thoughts, by Wilhelm Amberg. An individual experiencing sadness may become quiet or lethargic, and withdraw themselves from others.

During the Renaissance, Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene endorsed sadness as a marker of spiritual commitment.[22]

In The Lord of the Rings, sadness is distinguished from unhappiness,[23] to exemplify J. R. R. Tolkien's preference for a sad, but settled determination, as opposed to what he saw as the shallower temptations of either despair or hope.[24]

Julia Kristeva considered that "a diversification of moods, variety in sadness, refinement in sorrow or mourning are the imprint of a humanity that is surely not triumphant but subtle, ready to fight and creative".[25]

See also


  1. Jellesma F.C., & Vingerhoets A.J.J.M. (2012). Sex Roles (Vol. 67, Iss. 7, pp. 412-421). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer
  2. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (London 1996) p. 271
  3. T. Berry Brazleton, To Listen to a Child (1992) p. 46 and p. 48
  4. Masman, Karen (2010). The Uses of Sadness: Why Feeling Sad Is No Reason Not to Be Happy. Allen & Unwin. p. 8. ISBN 9781741757576. 
  5. R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and how to survive them (1994) p. 33 and p. 36
  6. R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and how to survive them (1994) p. 158–9
  7. Brazleton, p. 52
  8. Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (New York 1987) p. 274
  9. M. Mahler et al, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant (London 1975) p. 92
  10. D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Penguin 1973) p. 64
  11. Ahern, G.L., Davidson, R.J., Lane, R.D., Reiman, E.M., Schwartz, G.E. (1997). Neuroanatomical Correlates of Happiness, Sadness, and Disgust. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 926-933.
  12. Pardo JV, Pardo PJ, Raichle ME: Neural correlates of self-in- duced dysphoria. Am J Psychiatry 1993; 150:713–719
  13. George MS, Ketter TA, Parekh PI, Horowitz B, Herscovitch P, Post RM: Brain activity during transient sadness and happiness in healthy women. Am J Psychiatry 1995; 152:341–351
  14. "Feeling Sad", Kids Help Phone, November 2010
  15. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1996) p. 69–70
  16. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1996) p. 72
  17. Aliki Barnstone New England Review (1990-) , Vol. 21, No. 2 (Spring, 2000), p. 19
  18. R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and How to Survive Them (19??)p. 164
  19. Michael Parsons, The Dove that Returns, the Dove that Vanishes (London 2000) p. 4
  20. Harrison NA, Singer T, Rotshtein P, Dolan RJ, Critchley HD (June 2006). "Pupillary contagion: central mechanisms engaged in sadness processing". Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 1 (1): 5–17. PMC 1716019Freely accessible. PMID 17186063. doi:10.1093/scan/nsl006. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 Harrison NA, Wilson CE, Critchley HD (November 2007). "Processing of observed pupil size modulates perception of sadness and predicts empathy". Emotion. 7 (4): 724–9. PMID 18039039. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.7.4.724. 
  22. Douglas Trevor, The Poetics of Melancholy in early modern England (Cambridge 2004) p. 48
  23. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London 1991) p. 475
  24. T. A Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth (London 1992) p. 143
  25. Quoted in Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994) p. 87

Further reading