"Why sadness is good for you"

July 21, 2011

November 13, 2009

By Stephen Pincock

Online at

The couple in the corner were oddly distracting. It was the summer of 1987, and Joe Forgas, a psychologist who studies the interplay of moods and thinking, had taken his wife out for dinner to a little place in Heidelberg, Germany, where he was on sabbatical for the year. The trouble was that his eyes kept being drawn to the amorous display going on across the room. “I remember it still so clearly,” he laughs. “It was one of those unusual couples, a very attractive young girl and a rather old and unattractive man. They were obviously in a romantic situation, they were cuddling and kissing and everything, and I found myself looking over there repeatedly and sort of just puzzling.

As the minutes went by, and the cuddling continued, Forgas began to think about why he found it all so bewildering. In his professional life, he was exploring the way moods affect memory, and the odd couple got him thinking. “I had this idea: if that was a normal couple, like two young people, I would have produced a judgment fairly quickly. But when you see something that’s puzzling and out of the ordinary, you are forced to make more and more interpretations.

Forgas suspected that this kind of situation offered an ideal way to explore how emotions influence our judgments. Particularly, he suspected that the harder you need to think about a situation – the more you need to think creatively and use your memory to evaluate it – the more likely it is that your judgment will be affected by your mood at the time.

Back at work, Forgas designed a study to explore this theory. He created a set of picture cards showing couples who were well-matched in their physical attractiveness, and another batch showing attractive women and unattractive men, or vice versa. He then asked a group of 186 students to look at the photographs and describe their responses. Half of his group watched a sad film first, the other half, a comedy.

The results confirmed his suspicion. First, it took the volunteers much longer to make judgments of the badly matched couples than of the well-matched pairs. Second, and crucially, their responses were strongly linked to their mood: when a happy person (or rather, a person who’d just watched a happy film) looked at an oddly matched couple, they were more likely to think well of the relationship, whereas if they were sad, they judged it more negatively.

They saw them, both as individuals and as a couple, in more negative terms, says Forgas.


This experiment, conducted at the University of New South Wales in Australia, where Forgas is a professor, contributed to a growing awareness among psychologists that everything we perceive and evaluate is strongly affected by our mood.


It also works for your memories, Forgas explains. Let’s say you had a particularly sad day on October 20 last year. You’ll do a better job of remembering the events of that day when you’re again in a sad mood. Psychologists call this effect “mood congruence”. Out of a large memory store, we tend to pick things selectively that happen to match our current mood.

But the other link between mood and thinking that Forgas and others have more recently unearthed is even more profound. Not only does mood affect what you think about, it affects the very process of thinking. This revelation has contributed to the most remarkable shift in thinking about sadness to date: that being down is not only an intrinsic part of being human, but that it can actually be beneficial.

. . .

Forgas and I arrange to meet in his office one day in September. But when I arrive at his door, there’s a note tucked into the corner of his name plate saying he’ll be late: “Please take a seat inside,” it reads. The office is high up in a tall building, with a long view toward the high-rise centre of Sydney. The sky is blanketed with pale grey clouds-- a condition likely to enhance a person’s powers of observation, Forgas later explains. The office is filled with clocks. I count 17, not all of them ticking.

When Forgas arrives, we head downstairs to an outdoor café. He’s contained, slim and modest. His voice is soft against the background noise of undergraduates and retains the dark flavours of his native Hungary. When I ask what interested him in the effect of emotion on thinking, he first says that the relationship between feeling and thinking remains one of the great puzzles of human nature. But he also acknowledges that the appeal was more than purely academic.

I suppose it’s a trite observation that very often psychologists study the sort of phenomena that they personally find intriguing or interesting. I am a reasonably emotional person. I wouldn’t describe myself as bipolar but I’m very much aware of the fact that in our daily lives, emotional fluctuations, mood fluctuations, make a huge difference in how you see the world around you.

The role of sadness was particularly baffling, he says. It’s intriguing that our emotional repertoire is heavily skewed towards negative feelings. Since the pioneering work of scientist Paul Ekman in the 1970s, psychologists have identified six basic human emotions, four of which are negative – fear, anger, disgust and sadness (the other two are happiness and surprise). If all these negative emotions have survived the test of evolution, then perhaps they offer some kind of survival advantage, Forgas says. He set out to see if there was any evidence to show this was the case. And time after time, he found there was.

In the second half of the 20th century, psychologists began increasingly to strive to understand the functions of our emotions. Instead of seeing our moods as simply getting in the way of rational judgment, they began to find in them a useful component of our responses to social situations. In one study last year, Forgas and his colleagues asked happy and sad volunteers to judge the truth of a range of urban myths and rumours, and found that sad people tended to be more sceptical. They set up a computer game in which a series of images were quickly flashed up on a computer screen. Some showed people carrying guns, others bearing innocuous things, such as cola bottles or a coffee Thermos. The researchers asked participants to “shoot” at the images if the characters had a gun in their hands, but spare them if they were carrying other things.

Forgas and his colleagues mixed things up further by making another set of targets who were identical to the first set, except they were made to look Muslim by the addition of an Islamic headdress or hijab. This test was based on an earlier US study, where other scientists had found that US volunteers were more likely to shoot at black targets than white ones. Because the game required the volunteers to make snap decisions about whether the target was carrying a gun, or something harmless, the researchers thought it likely that their responses were being influenced by underlying stereotypes.

When Forgas and his team flashed up the Muslim and non-Muslim targets in quick succession, they found that, overall, people were more likely to “shoot” the Muslim targets. But that bias was reduced among sad people, a result supported by other research showing that negative moods lessen the likelihood that a person will rely on simple stereotypes when responding negatively to minority groups.

All these experiments suggested to Forgas and other psychologists, such as the German researcher Herbert Bless, that being happy or sad fundamentally changes the way your mind processes information. When you’re happy your brain is more likely subconsciously to base decisions on experience and knowledge you’ve already accumulated, such as stereotypes. When you’re sad, you pay more attention to new information in the outside world – a style of thinking psychologists refer to as “accommodative”.

. . .

In 2007, Forgas and his team began to take their research one step further. They wanted to know whether being a little down could actually make you more convincing. “We expected that accommodative processing should promote more concrete and factual thinking and result in superior persuasive messages,” he and colleagues wrote in a paper.

In a series of studies, they asked happy or sad volunteers to produce persuasive arguments for or against propositions such as increasing student fees, Aboriginal land rights, or whether Australia should become a republic. They then had those arguments rated by independent scientists and by an audience of undergraduate students. Every time, the sad people produced the more convincing arguments, giving Forgas and his colleagues even more reason to argue that being sad promotes a more concrete, systematic and solid processing style.

The icing on the cake came last year, when Forgas published perhaps his most intriguing study to date, one that took place in a corner shop not far from his office on the campus of the University of New South Wales. The testing ground for the experiment was the counter of the shop, on to which he and his colleagues placed a random selection of trinkets, the kind you might pull out of a Christmas cracker – plastic toy figurines, a toy cannon, a miniature red London bus and a tiny tractor.

The researchers wanted to see whether slight variations in mood would affect whether shoppers noticed and remembered these out-of-place items. So, on seven sunny days, and seven miserable, cloudy days, they asked customers coming out of the shop how many of the objects they could remember. To enhance the sad or happy mood, they also played appropriate music – Verdi’s Requiem on the cloudy days, for example, or a jaunty piece of Gilbert and Sullivan in the sunshine. Forgas and his team weren’t surprised by the result, although at first glance it might seem counterintuitive. On the grey, gloomy days, when people were likely to be a little sadder, participants in the study tended to recall what was on the shop counter more accurately. They were paying more attention.

For much of the 20th century, studying emotions was out of favour, says Jennifer Lerner, director of Harvard University’s Laboratory for Decision Science. As a result, most of the big questions in the field remain unanswered. In that context, she says, Forgas has made a significant impact. “He has made tremendous contributions to the field,” Lerner says, “systematically testing and analysing the ways in which emotion shapes the depth or shallowness of cognitive processes and the consequences for judgment outcomes.”

. . .

WH Auden described the years that followed the second world war as the “age of anxiety”. We seem to be living in the age of depression. According to the World Health Organisation, depression will become the second leading cause of worldwide disability by 2020, second only to heart disease. A report in 1997 showed that 40 per cent of all psychotherapy patients had been diagnosed with a mood disorder, the larger category that mostly comprises depression. A decade earlier, the proportion was half as great. In the US, one in five people suffers from severe depression.

But do these numbers really reflect an epidemic of clinical depression? In their book The Loss of Sadness, the American psychiatrists Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield argue that perhaps they don’t. They say doctors have been regularly labelling people as depressed when they are simply sad. Normal sadness, they say, tends to have an identifiable cause of some kind, particularly a loss, and is proportional in its intensity to the seriousness of that cause.

But normal sadness can also be accompanied by sleeplessness, lack of concentration and changed appetite. It can be distressing and can last for two weeks. Under the current definitions used by doctors and scientists, these criteria would make “sadness” fit the category of “depression”, a mental disorder suitable for treatment with a growing list of antidepressant drugs.

Horwitz and Wakefield are not for a minute suggesting that such pathological depression does not exist. Far from it. But they do argue that if doctors were to focus more on the context in which people’s “depression” arises, they might find that in many cases it is just plain sadness – an inherent part of the human condition.

For his part, Forgas is careful to point out that any benefits that he has found apply only to the passing mood or emotion of sadness, rather than the devastating illness that is severe, clinical depression. The biologist Lewis Wolpert, who himself has suffered disabling bouts of depression, has a nice analogy for how those two conditions are related. In his book Malignant Sadness he argues that depression is what happens when the normal emotion sadness has become pathological, just as cancer comes about when the normal processes of our cells become deranged.

Intuitively, these explanations all make sense. The kind of depression that destroys lives is clearly a disorder that needs treating. On the other hand, we know it’s understandable that we feel sad when a loved one dies, or when we lose a job we love, or even if our football team loses. Sadness is normal.

For Joe Forgas and other scientists like him, this “normalness” – the sheer prevalence of sadness – raises questions related to evolution. Every part of our humanity, from our little toes to the hairs on our head, is the way it is because of the actions of evolution over countless generations. “Starting with Charles Darwin’s book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, many have argued that all emotions have adaptive benefits,” says Jennifer Lerner. “I subscribe to this view myself.”