They don’t call it an emotional roller coaster for nothing. Certain experiences, and ultimately, life itself, contain the lot of them: anger, disgust, fear and sadness on one end; happiness, exhilaration and excitement on the other. In today’s world, we tend to have a morbid focus on the negative and prurient end of the spectrum (do you read The Daily Mail?!), coupled with a strong desire to experience happiness, all of the time.
The scientific term for happiness, ‘subjective well-being’, encompasses three aspects, according to American psychologist Martin Seligman: pleasure, meaning and engagement. Studies have found that it’s determined by our genes (50%), our daily activities (40%) and our circumstances (10%). The daily activity aspect is up to us. And by ‘us’ I mean that it’s entirely personal because happiness is subjective, as pointed out by Tosin Thompson on New Statesman. It’s up to us to figure out what makes us happy, and then do it, or do more of it.
This drive for happiness involves a singular focus on one emotion, but in reality, others are equally important. Sadness in particular gets a bad rap. People go to great lengths to avoid it. It’s even badly cast in children’s movies (in the film Inside Out, Sadness is personified as a sluggish character that another character, Joy, literally has to drag around!).
Despite the obvious need for an image overhaul, sadness is an emotion that should be embraced, in much the same way that we embrace happiness. Inside Out reminds us of two key insights into embracing the full spectrum of emotions, as explained by Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman on The New York Times.
First, emotions organize rational thinking. Sadness included, our emotions guide us through the world. They shape what we remember of the past, and the way we respond to our current environment. Second, emotions help organize our social lives. People might typically associate sadness with apathy and inaction, when in reality, sadness prompts people to unite in response to loss. Sadness can make us reflect on life and is a catalyst for song-writing and poetry for many. Anger can spur action. Sure, it would be nice if we could be happy all the time, but the roller coaster ride (and the soundtrack) would be pretty boring.