Sadness is generally viewed quite negatively in our society. As someone experiencing sadness, you might be pitied, faced with overly chipper comments designed to help you ‘cheer up’, or even ridiculed. Yet the feeling force of sadness has a positive purpose.
Sadness comes with the interpretation ‘this is unfortunate’; it’s about things we dislike but cannot change. (Anger, by contrast, comes with the sense ‘this is wrong’; its power is clarity and it helps us make decisions and act.) Sadness is a force of great depth and breadth. Too much sadness leads us to be passive, depressive, self-pitying and incapable of action. Too little leads us to be superficial, indifferent, repressing and lacking in sensitivity.
The power of sadness is to open our hearts, help us accept that which is not in alignment with how we would like things to be, and let go.
In organisational life, as things change, there is a lot we need to be willing and able to let go of: a long-held identity and source of success; preferred work colleagues; familiar journeys into the office; positions; certainties.
Experiencing adverse circumstances is an innate part of life and each of our feeling forces – including sadness – is an important part of us, serving a particular purpose. Part of sadness is recognising and accepting our helplessness. Experiencing sadness fully helps us to go deep and to develop wisdom.
Our emotional health depends on the free, unfolding and appropriate application of each emotional force in daily life.
In her study of emotional dis-ease, speaker, teacher and author Vivian Dittmar shows how our feeling forces are often wasted, abused, suppressed or unused. The basic mechanisms of how we create emotional disease all appear to have one thing in common – they are all strategies to avoid feeling.
So how might we access and master the power of sadness?
Acknowledging that sadness has an intrinsic value in and of itself, and not just by virtue of its passing, is key.
If we lack the willingness or ability to mourn, to consider something to be unfortunate, our relationship to our colleagues and the world around us will have a superficial quality. We may find ourselves working to move anything we dislike out of our way – or resolutely denying its very existence – rather than simply being with the things we don’t like, accepting them as they are.
How, you might ask, does this encouragement to embrace sadness reconcile with what we know about positive psychology? Afterall, happiness is the key to mental and physical health, and personal and professional success, right? Well, yes and… Margaret E. Kemeny, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of San Francisco, has done extensive research exploring the connection between our emotional life and our immune system. She has found that:
‘negative’ and ‘positive’ feelings influence the immune system in exactly the same way, as long as these feelings are permitted and expressed spontaneously.
The body shows augmented resistance for the duration of the experienced feeling; this is seen with joy, fear, anger and sadness. Only when one of these feelings is accumulated into an emotion – becoming jammed or stuck – is the immune system clearly affected adversely.
So it seems our ability to swim in the stream of our feelings as they are created will serve us well.
For invaluable insights and guidance on using feelings intelligently read Vivian Dittmar’s book The Power of Feelings: A Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence or watch this 15 minute introductory video.
If you’re a change agent and want to help others access the power of their sadness, ask yourself:
- How do I support people to connect with and make sense of what they’re feeling?
- How do I legitimise sadness as having a positive purpose?
- Do I allow people to fully experience their sadness, or do I rush in to ‘cheer them up’?
- How do I help people identify what it is they feel helpless about, are experiencing as unfortunate or need to let go of?
‘The notion that negative feelings can be experienced as beautiful is usually met with considerable astonishment.’ ~ Vivian Dittmar