Learning to live with it: Sadness as the key to being happier


Elizabeth Walsh speaks to best selling author Helen Russell about her latest book and how being sad 'right' can lead to us being happier overall.

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Image by Simon Meyer

By Elizabeth Walsh

Sadness is inescapable. It is an emotion we will all experience at numerous points in our lives and yet we struggle to accept it. Sadness can feel like weakness and we are all guilty of trying to ‘get back to normal’ as soon as possible instead of properly processing how we feel. In her new book How to be sad best selling author, journalist and speaker Helen Russell delves deeply into sadness. Consulting psychologists, neuroscientists and historians along the way she concludes that  processing it properly can actually make us happier in the long-run.

How to be sad draws on Russell’s own experiences of profound sadness from losing a family member, to battling an eating disorder and depression. Life is tough and we all have ‘sad’ experiences, no matter how good social media makes other people's lives appear all of the time. Remember we rarely post when we are sad.Towards the end of the book in a chapter entitled Get Even, Mind  she draws on the effects of social media and how this can inevitably exacerbate feelings of sadness. The Psychologist Henrik Hogh-Olsen tells Russell that due to social media, our peer group hugely increases to include everybody we see in the media. He explains “Our peer group is the 1 percent of the planet who are beautiful and successful and geniuses”. Of course, this isn't reality.

Even individuals with seemingly perfect lives still get sad. Russell interviews a host of famous faces including Jeremy Vine,  Adam Kay and Ella Mills, all of whom open up about their own past traumas. Vine even explains how he factors time for sadness into his year, as he knows unplanned, sad events are going to happen. We can’t avoid sadness, but like Vine we can certainly preempt it and once it does arrive we need to learn to sit with it, deal with it and come out of the other side. As Russell aptly puts it – “If we allow ourselves to feel more, we cope better.”

Part of allowing ourselves to feel is to share those feelings with others. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. In Chapter 15, The Buddy System, Russell explores the importance of speaking to friends when we feel down. When we feel overwhelmed it's time to call – what Russell coins the ‘mood-engineer’ – also known as a friend. Drawing on the example of scuba divers who dive in pairs for safety reasons under the rule of “never dive alone”, Russell extends this analogy to everyday life. She says “never live alone” and it's important to remember that we are not alone even when sadness feels all consuming.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Russell about her latest book, including the inspiration behind writing it, what surprised her while researching and what she hopes readers will take away from reading it.

What was the inspiration behind writing the book?

“Having spent the past eight years researching into happiness worldwide,” Russell begins,  “I began to notice that many of the people I met were so obsessed with the pursuit of happiness that they were phobic of feeling sad. I’d speak to people who had just lost loved ones who would ask how they could be happy. I would try to explain that, sometimes, we need to be sad. Sadness is what we’re supposed to feel after a loss and sorrow is the sane response when sad things happen. In a global pandemic for instance, it’s okay to feel sad.”

She continues, “I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve said, ‘I just want to be happy,’ at times when this is almost impossible. When experiencing loss or disappointment – it’s normal to be sad. If we acknowledge this and allow ourselves to experience this feeling, chances are it will move on more quickly than if we ignore it, stick our fingers in our ears and shout ‘la la la’. During my research I’ve become increasingly convinced that many of us have been sold a very narrow definition of ‘happiness’ – a definition that means never being sad. So I wanted to address this.”

Did you find that speaking to people from all around the world really helped with different perspectives?

“Absolutely – we have a very narrow view of our emotions in the UK, whereas in other countries it’s considered more acceptable to experience sadness and happiness simultaneously.” There is more nuance and ambiguity elsewhere and in other cultures, people are more in touch with their emotions – ‘good’ and ‘bad’.” She adds, “In Bhutan, for example, crematoriums are located centrally so that children grow up with the idea that loss and death are inevitable. Mourning in Greece is a big, public affair.”

Was there anything that  surprised  you while you were researching and or writing the book?

“I was surprised that the obsession with the pursuit of happiness and avoiding sadness at all costs is actually a very modern, geographically specific obsession – in East Asian cultures, it’s more accepted to experience sadness and happiness simultaneously. Nuance is ok!” Russell continues, “In Maori culture, strength and showing emotions are one and the same.

“Also, playing sad music when we’re feeling low is a perfectly healthy compulsion that makes a lot of sense! This can feel like a companion, foster a sense of belonging, give us identity and even help us heal, according to science.

“Researchers from the University of South Florida found that depressed participants were more likely to choose sad music, because it was relaxing or calming. Another study from the University of Limerick showed that non-depressed people also prefer sad music when blue, because it can ‘act like a supportive friend’ and trigger bittersweet memories.”

What are the main things you hope readers will take away from reading How to be sad?

  1. We will never be truly happy if we’re terrified of being sad.
  2. Acknowledging and accepting temporary sadness can, counter intuitively, make us happier.
  3. There are ways we can be sad well; this book shows you how, what to do when you’re sad and how to talk about being sad.

Sadness is unavoidable but it is manageable, if only we learn to deal with it in the right ways.

Some of the studies Russell discusses can be found by  following the links below: