health

How I learned that by trying to avoid sadness, I was only making it worse | Helen Russell


Propped up by pillows and turned at intervals, like a pork chop on a grill, I endured a period of enforced bed rest a few years back when my world shrank to four walls. During what doctors termed a “high-risk geriatric pregnancy” I was incapacitated, developing sores on my hips and tailbone (despite the flipping) and an overwhelming melancholy.

I reminded myself that this was temporary and that in the history of the world, for many people, things had been far grimmer. And then I proved it to myself by embarking on a study of the history of sadness. This was less miserable than it sounds and excellent for putting things into perspective, heightening compassion, and encouraging the groundswell of change.

History is roughly divided into two camps – those who thought sadness was OK and those who thought it was terrible. Early Egyptian, Chinese and Babylonian civilisations viewed sadness as a form of demonic possession and used corporal punishment and starvation in their attempts to drive out the demons. In ancient Greek and Roman times, doctors prescribed an Insta-friendly regime of gymnastics, massage, special diets and regular baths to alleviate symptoms.

Melancholia emerges as an illness in the writings of Hippocrates, and was thought to be brought on by an imbalance of the bodily “humours”, or fluids. Any sickness or disease in the body was the result of an excess of one of these fluids, and the doctor’s job was to bring the humours back into balance by purging or bloodletting. “At least no one’s doing that to me …” was an initial thought.

By the middle ages, feeling sad essentially meant God hated you. For clerics in medieval Europe, melancholy was a sign that you were living in sin and in need of repentance. But being sad meant that you were considered closer to God in the minds of many a Renaissance man (let’s face it, no one was listening to women), marking the first shift toward embracing sadness. In 1590, the poet Edmund Spenser even went so far as to endorse sadness as a marker of spiritual commitment. There was now an idea that if you were happy, it was likely to be because you were getting your kicks from something not altogether holy – such as sex or alcohol.

With advances in science and technology during the Enlightenment, thinkers began to consider our bodies from a mechanical point of view, seeing sadness as a malfunction of the human machine. The physician George Cheyne came up with the theory that melancholy was caused by all the newly acquired comforts and luxuries made possible by mechanisation. Not enough toiling the land – and too much thinking.

Here I became sidetracked by a passing crush on the 19th-century Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (I blame pregnancy hormones) who seemed to have sadness nailed in three key respects. He counselled us to feel all the feels, even the hard stuff, even when it hurts, writing: “Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced.” Sadness and despair are not only inevitable: they are bliss-inducing and necessary for change. Third, to help us figure life out, Kierkegaard urged walking. “I have walked myself into my best thoughts … if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right,” he wrote.

Bedridden, I believed him. I’d spent most of my life running from sadness until this point. Upbeat and happy were all I knew to aim for, no matter how things felt on the inside – which, having lost my sister and my dad within the same year growing up, often wasn’t great. Sad, I’d gleaned, was bad. As a therapist would later tell me: “It’s no surprise you spent eight years researching happiness: you were scared of sadness. Most people are.”

Kierkegaard wasn’t. He was totally prepared to accept that life would feel bleak at times – this meant you were doing it right. But if the benefits of sadness were something Kierkegaard realised so long ago, why had so many of us forgotten how to be sad? To learn more, I returned to my studies.

Also in the 19th century, in Britain, a population explosion and increased urbanisation meant that people were living cheek by jowl, often in unsanitary conditions. “Death was all around and became an open and ongoing conversation,” Prof John Plunkett from Exeter University told me. To cope with the sadness, Victorians embraced grief with gusto – exemplified by Queen’s Victoria’s mourning of her husband. “But even by the time Albert died, culture was starting to shift,” said Plunkett. At the tail-end of the century and into the next, London’s cholera outbreaks, the first world war and then the Spanish flu pandemic brought an end to extravagant funerals and rituals, with the sheer scale of loss of life from these horrors making such mourning impossible.

And then came the second world war. Widespread suffering meant that expressions of grief had little space and stoicism became prized above all else. And so a generation grew up keeping calm and carrying on. Their kids, however, had other ideas. Baby boomers came of age as a generation more in touch with their emotions and prioritised self-esteem as a result of a shift in thinking. “This was the beginnings of an emphasis on protecting the ego,” Prof Nathaniel Herr of American University explained. “We started striving for ‘happy’ above all else.” So we were allowed to feel, but we’d better feel happy. Only, sometimes we’re not happy. And this is a problem if we don’t know how to handle sadness. Understanding this felt like a gamechanger. It wasn’t just me; wed forgotten how to handle sadness as a society.

At this point, my curriculum was curtailed by a trip to the operating room for a long-awaited delivery, but an idea was also born in that most poignant of moments: the best thing I could do for myself, and my future family, would be to learn to be sad. Once I was back on my feet I continued my quest and discovered that avoiding sadness by burying it or ignoring it doesn’t work, since suppressing so-called negative thoughts only exacerbates them. Experiencing temporary sadness on the other hand, can – counterintuitively – make us happier. And since sadness happens to all of us, we might as well do it right. Accepting sadness as a key part of our human experience makes us more compassionate to ourselves as well as others. And just as my 19th-century crush knew: sadness can act as a catalyst for much-needed change and ultimately a more fulfilling life.

Since I started studying sadness, I’ve begun to make changes prompted by those powerful feelings. It isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Because many of us have been sold a very narrow definition of happiness that means never being sad. But this isn’t happiness – it’s barely even a life. If we want to live well, we have to make friends with sadness, too. Starting now.



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