Why can’t we sit with sadness? – with How to Be Sad author Helen Russell

Why can’t we sit with sadness? – with How to Be Sad author Helen Russell

by Suswati Basu
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Freelance journalist Johanna Leggatt says: “Sadness is a reasonable response to the horrors of the world and the absurdities and disappointments of modern life”, and yet we tend to be averse to this notion, running in the opposite direction in a bid to pursue happiness.

So why can’t we sit with sadness, and can it be good for us? 

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Helen Russell, journalist and bestselling author of The Year of Living Danishly, speaks to me about her new book How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, by Being Sad, Better:

Mindset coach for transformation Gema Monzon

Parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Author and CEO of Project Happiness Global Randy Taran speaks to NBC:

Books looked at this week:

Helen Russell: How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, by Being Sad, Better

Randy Taran: Emotional Advantage: Embracing All Your Feelings to Create a Life You Love

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 27 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

Sometimes when we’re so busy trying to pursue happiness, we tend to want to run away from any negative emotion at all. We’ve been hearing the term “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay” more and more frequently, and four years ago, journalist Johanna Leggatt wrote in the Guardian that whilst she had thankfully never experienced depression, she had felt deep sadness.

But either we seem determined to do away with sadness, or we pathologise it into a treatable condition. And yet the University of California, Berkeley, testing 1,300 adults found that those who avoided their negative feelings or judged themselves harshly for feeling bad were more likely to report mood disorders and distress six months later.

So how do we sit with sadness?

Here’s life coach Gema Monzon on her views:


Our first book is from Helen Russell, journalist and bestselling author of The Year of Living Danishly and whose work has appeared across the spectrum from The Guardian to The Wall Street Journal.

Her new book is How to Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned about Getting Happier, by Being Sad, Better and she shared some of her time with me. Watch the full interview on http://www.howtobe247.com, but here’s a snippet.


Her book recounts her own various “sad” experiences (anorexia, IVF, the struggles of raising a young family), and also investigates how we manage our emotions, why we feel sad and why we fear it so much.

Sadness is defined as the natural response to emotional pain, feelings of loss, helplessness, hopelessness, or disappointment. Russell says it can tell us if something is wrong if we let it. Sadness is the temporary emotion that we all feel on occasions when we’ve been hurt or something is wrong in our lives. It is a message. After all no one is happy all the time.

Psychologist Richard Wenzlaff confirms that trying not to think or feel something sad makes us more prone to anxiety, depressive thoughts, and symptoms. And the World Health Organisation estimates now that 264 million people globally are affected by depression.

And yet we seem to shy away from it, often through deprivation, excess, trying to fight it in some shape or form, or striving to reach perfectionistic goals. Russell says western culture tends to see sadness as something to be solved, and distress to be alleviated. Yet grief is the price we pay for love, but if we are not prepared for this and we’ve been raised to demand happiness, or at least in numbing out of pain at every turn, we are less able to ride out the storm. In Japan for example, Psychologist Jeanne Tsai from Stanford University’s Culture and Emotion Laboratory refers to a study where melancholia, sensitivity, and fragility are not negative things in the Japanese context. And it’s not just Japan, it’s China, New Zealand, Mexico, Russia etc.

In the US, lower positive emotions are linked with higher BMI and less healthy blood lipid profiles but in Japan studies show that people with lower positive emotions are pretty much fine.

Professor Nathaniel Herr from American University in Washington DC, an expert in emotional regulation says that sadness in itself is a problem-solving type of emotion because it produces rumination, allowing us to stop and consider where we are, before we can move on to the next step. And Russell frequently mentions Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher, who considered despair as an important tool for change. Because unresolved grief is said to cause 15% of all psychological disorders, according to Julia Samuel in her book Grief Works.

Russell also speaks to Ad Vingerhoets, the “Tear Professor ” from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, who found that cortisol levels do decreased in those who cry, because crying is a way to elicit support from others during times of distress.

Another important aspect, is that high expectations on ourselves can cause sadness. Happiness researcher Meik Wiking who conducted research into the impact of social media on happiness discovered social media to be a hotbed of performative happiness that makes both performer and audience feel worse afterwards. One study showed that participants were 55% less stress after just one week off Facebook.

There are many psychological issues connected to high expectations, including low self-esteem, since failure to meet our expectations confirmed our low regard for ourselves. There’s also a link to negative core beliefs. The final, most pernicious side effect of high expectations is perfectionism.

Harvard University lecturer and author of The Pursuit of Perfect, Dr Tal Ben-Shahar says perfectionists are permanently disappointed, because they like to think that the path to success will be failure free, a straight line, but the reality is more of a squiggle. As a result, it’s been linked to a number of health issues tied to deprivation and excess including depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, burnout, OCD, PTSD, chronic fatigue syndrome, Insomnia, indigestion, and early death according to a West Virginia University researcher Katie Rasmussen.

Hence, Dr Ben-Shahar says a better idea is lowering our expectations and swapping perfectionism for something the experts call adaptive optimalism, which means enjoying the journey rather than the end result. He also mentions that pursuing goals causes a rise in dopamine, but when we reach that goal, the dopamine drops off and we end up feeling nothing. Therefore we are more susceptible to anticlimax or arrival fallacy if the goals we pursue are external says Dr. Ben-Shahar.

And taking time to be kind to ourselves is an important factor. Russell says sadness doesn’t go away. But we cope better if we allow time for it, rather than busying ourselves continually. We are not the sum of what we do, we are not worth any less because we are not achieving all the time. Sometimes, we just need to be.

Excess also includes addictions, and a 2019 Global Drug Survey found that the average Brit tops the worlds list of drinkers, with US coming in second. Research from George Mason and Northeastern universities in the US in 2019 found that people who fully experience and work through their emotions are less likely to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms or experience anxiety and depression.

Psychologists have found that when we attempt to deny or block a spectrum of our emotions, we can dissociate from ourselves. Dissociation is one of the earliest defence mechanisms to develop, and has been defined as a lack of normal integration of thoughts, feelings, and experiences into the stream of consciousness and memory.

We also need to express anger in healthy outlets, as the neuroscientist Dr Dean Burnett directs Russell to a study that shows getting mad can actually lower levels of cortisol.

Russell also talks about the very British need to say sorry for everything, apparently we say it an average of eight times a day according to a YouGov poll. But sometimes this just seems to avoid dealing with sadness, because we tend to be quite averse to vulnerability with the Eton boy culture.

A 2014 study from Harvard University found that grieving rituals are also crucial for regaining a sense of control, something many will have experienced first-hand during COVID-19 when the ban on public gatherings made funerals impossible.

And it’s important to have perspective on sadness. The diagnostic manual used by millions of mental health practitioners only requires five criteria to meet the minimum depression threshold, which means the number of people diagnosed has increased exponentially – which doesn’t mean that they don’t necessarily need help, it’s just important to understand the context.

Hence Russell recommends talking therapies, buddy systems such as those in the US, or support networks. And beyond that, getting your culture vitamins through shared experiences post-covid such as listening music, theatre, and the arts. BRAIN SCANS apparently show that when we are immersed in a book, we mentally rehearse the activities, sights and sounds of a story, stimulating neural pathways. Going out and getting some sun can affect the levels of melatonin and serotonin in the brain, and light stimulates activity in the hypothalamus.

In 2018, Dr Brendon Stubbs and colleagues found that if you do 150 minutes of exercise a week, or 20 minutes a day, you have a 30 percent reduced risk of depression, with an upper ceiling of 300 minutes per week. Dr Stubbs told Russell that although 10,000 steps may be an arbitrary number, not exercising for a week, made people feel worse. And having a good diet is essential to having a good foundation.

And lots of deliberate rest is necessary. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, visiting scholar at Stanford University recommends we prioritise sleep as well as regular naps, where possible, and planned periods of total rest.

Our final book is from ironically another Happiness researcher. Randy Taran is the CEO of Project Happiness Global, a non-profit organisation, and the author of Emotional Advantage: Embracing All Your Feelings to Create a Life You Love. Here she is on NBC.


Taran’s own daughter lived with depression, hence in her quest to help her, she found that none of her approaches to happiness resonated with her daughter at all. Thus she embarked on a journey interviewing countless experts and spiritual leaders in a bid to get to the bottom of it.

Whilst Taran believes that human beings’ natural state is to be happy, it can be cultivated through training and gratitude. She says humans have evolved to desire anything that strengthened their survival and likelihood of passing on traits, which is why most people are wired to protect their loved ones, find food and shelter, and raise up the next generation. And while desire can be essential for progress, eastern philosophers warn of the dangers of being too attached to a particular desire.

People who don’t heed this advice may get stuck in a in a rat-race and end up miserable, relying heavily on external desires and pursuits to bolster themselves up such as likes on social media, money, or property. This can lead to compulsive behaviour as a result. Like Dr Ben-Shahar mentioned in the previous book, no matter how much you get, you’ll always want more, which means you’ll never reach the summit. Hence Taran says to balance your desires with gratitude for the things you already have.

Taran also comes back to the importance of sadness as an emotion. She says “If you never experienced sadness when you lost something or someone important to you, you wouldn’t appreciate the important things in life. And without experiences that make you sad, you wouldn’t value happiness as much.”

Studies show that sadness can increase motivation to to effect positive changes in your life, help you make better decisions about whether to trust people, and actually will eventually stop being the predominant emotion that you’re experiencing unlike depression. Hence she recommends to fully embrace it, rather than suppress it, reflect on how you are feeling and what have you learned, and take action by talking to someone, going for a walk, or even petting a dog or cat. Either way, don’t rush the recovery process.

Taran also believes embracing fear is crucial. She says fear can help keep you from exposing yourself to unnecessary danger, and enhance your focus, responsiveness, and awareness of your immediate surroundings. According to Dr. Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion, when emotions like fear are repressed, your neural network pathways get clogged up. This blocks the flow of chemicals that make you feel bad, as well as the chemicals that make you feel good. Hence Taran recommends a similar approach, to ask yourself what is your fear telling you, after all, sometimes it can be warranted.

She goes on to guilt and shame, and says there is a distinction between the two. Guilt is the feeling that you have done something wrong, while shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with you.

Psychology professor June Tangney did a study in which she examined the ways that 550 fifthgraders experienced guilt and shame in their lives. Then, she followed up when they were in eighth grade and again when they were 18. She found that those who were especially susceptible to these emotions and didn’t learn to cope with them developed drug and alcohol dependency and addictive behaviours. Hence the key to addressing guilt is to learn from your mistakes, make amends, and move forward.

Whilst with shame, Taran says you need to understand what feeds it. According to the notable researcher Brené Brown, there are three things that feed shame: secrecy, silence, and judgement. Noticing the emotion and honoring it is key to starving shame of its fuel. Once you’ve acknowledged your triggers, give yourself permission to fall short of your expectations for yourself.

After accepting your imperfections, Taran recommends setting some very simple goals that will enable you to regain your trust and respect and show yourself that you can make progress in an area that brings you shame ie. Simple tasks that you know you can complete or manage. Above all, make it your top priority to find connection with others as you address your shame.

So to sum up:

Russell says in How To Be Sad that sadness has a point and it can tell us when something is wrong. If we are obsessed with the pursuit of happiness to the extent that we are phobic about sadness, we will feel worse. But loss, when experienced wholeheartedly, can lead to a new sense of aliveness, and to a re-engagement with the outside world. Sadness is not depression, as it can be a temporary emotion, but if we dont listen, it is more likely to tip into something else. Russell beautiful concludes: “There is meaning in pain and sadness. If we’re sad or scared, it’s a sign that we care: that we’re connected. We need to experience all our emotions and live with our suffering enduring rather than denying or anaesthetising it.”

Taran says in Emotional Advantage that there’s no such thing as a bad emotion, and that part of what makes life meaningful and fulfilling is the satisfaction of navigating all the ups and downs the way a ship navigates the currents and storms of the sea. Your emotions serve as a compass that help you figure out which direction you are headed. Welcome all your emotions, honor them, and use them to guide you from where you are to where you want to go.

As someone with chronic depression, it can be difficult to differentiate at times. But I know that if I can still smile, get up that day, and find some level of connection or enjoyment, it means any time I feel melancholic at that point is something I need to sit and think about. So I journal, take it slow, and be introspective through mindfulness. Above all, I have to be kind to myself. Your mind has a mind of its own.

And to finish this session, here is the wonderful parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja back with more sterling advice. And if you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe!


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