In Defense of Sadness

Alya Bohr, Columnist

Happiness is overrated.

I know, I know, I’ve resorted to a controversial grabber to get your attention, but I promise I’m going somewhere. The pervasive myth of happiness as the ultimate goal of life is everywhere. We’re told to do what makes us happy. We’re encouraged not to worry; to be high spirited. Perhaps we were even lured to Whitman by the shiny promise of a “cult of happiness.” But what about the times when life just sucks? What about those of us who tend toward a baseline state of melancholy and malaise? What is it that is so innately wrong about sadness—despite the slight discomfort—that means we have to do everything we can to rid it from our lives and join the smiling masses?

In his book “Against Happiness,” author Eric Wilson warns about the extinction of sadness in a culture that is over-medicated and addicted to the elusive concept of happiness. He explores the well-trod, yet undeniably powerful link between depression and creativity. He argues the importance of “sweet sorrow” and posits that experiencing the world from a state of mild sadness can enhance and enrich the meaning of one’s life. Wilson laments the boring, tired, repetitive nature of the world and says, “Then along comes what Keats calls the melancholy fit, and suddenly the planet turns interesting. The veil of familiarity falls away. There before us fall bracing possibilities.”

Blindly striving for happiness and rejecting melancholy creates a culture of fear. Instead of embracing discomfort, uncertainty and anxiety, most of us will do anything for a bland state of contentment. In thinking that we have to avoid negative emotions at all costs, we let our need to flee from unhappiness dictate our lives. It’s seductive to chase contentment, yes, but humans are far too nuanced and complicated to turn a blind eye to our sullenness and blues. Accepting sadness adds poignancy to life, makes us more creative and helps us find and discover ourselves.

This is not by any means intended to romanticize depression or the tortured artist motif. Depression is an incredibly painful form of suffering that extends beyond the scope of general malaise and should be treated as such. What I’m discussing is sadness, glumness and those melancholy moments that we often feel deep in our guts. But it’s also true these days that more and more people are being treated and medicated for very mild depression. We are constantly given the message that to feel anything less than perfect happiness is to have a problem, one that must be fixed with the utmost urgency.

Personally, I’ve struggled on and off with bouts of both depression and anxiety. I tried medication and, helping me out of a dark period, it made everything feel easier and lighter for a time. But I’ve begun to understand how to separate my occasional depressive phases from my propensity toward melancholy, and I see now that my life is much richer when I have full access to the array of emotions that my physiology can dictate. My blues are a part of me, a part that I value, despite the discomfort.

It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to be melancholy. While many of us don’t operate from a baseline level of glumness, we surely all feel down from time to time. Running from these feelings, desperately chasing after happiness, detracts from personal growth and enjoyment. But embracing the discomfort of sadness makes us stronger, wiser and cultivates many other character-building qualities that emerge from sitting with uncomfortable emotions.

Genuine moments of joy are always tempered by splashes of pain and melancholy. We cannot selectively numb our feelings. I exhort you all to ride the cheesy, metaphorical rollercoaster of emotions that is human experience. We don’t have to fight melancholy; we don’t have to hide from sadness. In embracing moments of darkness, we can more clearly experience the light in our lives.