Why Sadness is the Key to True Happiness

tree-silhouette-at-nightThe other night I felt overcome by sadness as I reflected upon all the suffering of this world.

In many ways, I have a perfect life.  Nevertheless, a part of me will always be sad as long as there is suffering in this world.

Life is bittersweet.  And that’s OK with me.  Happiness without sadness would not be complete…as long as suffering persists.

I sat with the feelings of sadness, gazing at the dark night sky.  I didn’t try to push them away.  Quite the contrary, I felt empowered by them.

Usually, we want to move away from sadness as quickly as possible.

We’re encouraged to divert ourselves from the emotion by engaging in physical activity, imagining pleasant and relaxing experiences, or looking for humor in a situation that makes us sad.  Some people, who are naturally empathetic, have decided to protect themselves from sadness and other untoward emotions by not watching the news.  I can understand why.  There’s even a danger of becoming hardened and developing “compassion fatigue” in the face of overwhelming tragedy like the recent disasters in Japan.

But I say, let your heart be broken into a million pieces.  You will be all the better for it.  Here’s why.

3 Ways Sadness Can Empower You

Sadness is not always as bad as it’s made out to be.  In fact, sadness can be the start of your journey directly to the heart of true happiness.  Here are 3 ways that sadness can help and empower you.

1.  Sadness Has the Power to Introduce a Crack in Our Idea of Reality

There is not a single person in this world that can escape from suffering.  Suffering is the fundamental characteristic of the way we lead our lives.  Failing to see our true nature, our life ends up a constant dance of attachment and aversion.  This is precisely what brings unhappiness our way.

“I like this.  I don’t like that.  I want this.  I don’t want that.”

There may be transitory moments of happiness when things go our way, we have an enjoyable sensory experience, or acquire an entrancing new possession.  But this happiness is not a long lasting one.  All the tension of striving for what we want and rejecting everything else just brings more complications and more suffering.  We’re rarely satisfied for more than a moment.  Then we’re on to achieving a new goal, having the next experience, getting a better possession, or finding the right relationship.

How about trying this – when sadness pops up, instead of running away, let her wake you up.  Sadness has the power to introduce a crack in our limited and limiting version of reality.  Maybe life isn’t all about wanting, getting, accomplishing, and possessing. Maybe there is another way.

And even if you know this already, sadness can sing you an even deeper song.

A moment of sadness can be marvelous indeed. You might see clearly for the very first time. Or you might get fantastically woken up once again.  Either way, let sadness spark your life with new meaning and purpose.

2. Let Your Heart Break Into a Million Pieces

When sadness breaks open our heart, we become fully human.

By having the courage to touch  our own pain and suffering, we can touch and feel the pain and suffering of the entire world.  We see:  your suffering and my suffering are the same.  Suffering is a common thread that unites all of humanity.  From recognizing this simple truth, a profound feeling of interconnectedness can arise.  This sense of interconnection can bring about an unspeakable joy.  It can ignite the wish to bring happiness to all others.

3.  Nothing Ever Stays the Same for Even a Moment

Sadness comes when things change – a relationship ends, someone dies, we’re fired from a job, illness descends, a friend is physically hurt, a disaster happens.  Sadness introduces us to impermanence and can help us learn to let go.

Change is the only constant in life.  Until we learn to accept change gracefully, we’ll always suffer.  There’s a blessing in embracing the beauty of impermanence.  Through doing so, we will come to value every precious moment of this life and live in a far saner and more fulfilling way.

Reflection:  Let Sadness Redouble Our Efforts to Help

The quote I’ve chosen for the reflection this week is a favorite of the Dalai Lama’s.  It shows us how sadness can redouble our determination to be of service to others.

“For as long as space exists

And sentient beings endure,

May I too remain,

To dispel the misery of the world.”

-Shantideva

A Healthy Approach to Sadness

Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone get stuck on sadness – that would be depression.  Acknowledging, expressing, and resolving grief leads to greater health and happiness.  Repressed grief leads to contraction.

At the same time, we don’t need to push sadness away as soon as it pays a visit.  Sadness can be the doorway to profound understanding.  I feel empowered by sadness because it helps me see what really matters in life:  kindness, love, and compassion.

How do you look at sadness in your life?  Has sadness every brought more meaning or happiness into your life?

If you liked this article, please share the link with others using the share button below.  And, I would love to hear from you in the comments.  Thanks so much for your support! Sandra

Comments

  1. says

    In my life, the experience of great sadness, and the understanding resulting from what I learn in overcoming it has led directly to being a more compassionate person. If you have known hurt, you recognize it in others and are able to more effectively act to alleviate needless suffering. If you can’t be sad about your own ignorance and failures, you won’t rededicate to improving your focus.

    This post was very easy for me to relate to, Sandra. It’s an important subject to tackle.

    • says

      Hi Mike,

      “Great sadness” – such a gorgeous phrase! Regret is another wonderful quality that you mention in the context of sadness! Thank you for reminding us of how regret is another aspect of sadness that – in the proper doses – moves us forward. You have such a full heart!

    • says

      Alex,

      I’m reminded of the amazing transformation you’ve made in life to learn to love deeply and fully. I know you know the “great sadness” well! Thanks for your appreciation.

  2. Stella says

    So much truth in this post Sandra. When sadness comes along we must embrace it in the same way that we should embrace every other experience that makes us human. Without sadness, how could we experience joy and happiness? Like Mikey, I think that through experiencing sadness and suffering we are more fully able to show love and compassion to others.
    Thank you, once again.
    Stella

    • says

      Stella,

      You’ve underlined the key point > instead of turning away from sadness, allowing it in and even embracing it. Very beautifully said, Stella. I always appreciate hearing your thoughts.

  3. says

    I guess it’s the accepting of sadness as part of the human condition that’s required for serenity. Because all feelings are transitory, the good news is that the sadness will lift and bad news is that those moments joy and elation will also cease. And if sadness isn’t understood and handled in a healthy way, there is the risk that it can spiral into depression. A very insightful blog and ironically a joy to read. Thanks Sandra.
    Riley

    • says

      I agree fully, Riley. All these feelings are transitory like the clouds in the sky. They aren’t the real you or me. The best way we can approach them is to simply let them drift by. Due to our long standing habits though, that’s usually easier said than done! But with time, we can come to understand our emotions and take them less seriously. These are good points. I thank you for them. I’m glad this post was a “joy” to read.

  4. says

    I just came home from a few days at the cabin and found your post. I came home in such a sad mood. I don’t know why, but I feel soooooo sad today. So how timely. There is a quote that goes something like, “A heart broken open can contain the entire universe,” or something like that. I can’t put my hands on the source right now.

    There is also something I’ve read in Buddhism about the connection between being awakened and sadness. Again, my memory is fuzzy (too much napping at the cabin!). Does that sound familiar? It brings together joy and sadness in a way that made so much sense to me at the time. I will see if I can find it.

    I’m going to read your post again right now and sit with this sadness for awhile. Thank you.

    • says

      Hi Galen,

      Sadness just come up sometimes, doesn’t it? That’s a beautiful quote about the heart broken open. In Buddhism, there is a connection between sadness and awakening that teachers often talk about, but I’m not sure which one you might have read.

      I appreciate your courage to simply sit with the sadness!

  5. Vivian says

    Dear Sandra,

    This post is absolutely touching. When we pass through water or fire, life cannot be the same again. When we live pain or sadness, we’re playing our role as a human beings. There isn’t another way or choice to take.

    For that reason:

    There isn’t growing without battles;
    there isn’t light without darkness;
    there isn’t freedom without chains;
    there isn’t happiness without sorrow.
    That’s life, a bittersweet melody.

    Thank you, for your beautiful soul Sandra. ♥

  6. says

    Sandra,

    This is such an important post. I especially love #2, letting your heart break into a million pieces. If we hold ourselves back from heartbreak, we sustain our separateness – then wonder why we feel disconnected and alone. Moving our attention, our whole being, into this tender space reveals the intimacy with all things that we long for.

    Thank you for sharing with such clarity.

    • says

      Hi Gail,

      So nice to see you! I really appreciate your emphasis on the way we often sustain our separateness and then suffer for it. When we can touch the tenderness of heartbreak, it can reveal so much to us. Your thoughts added so beautifully to this exploration of sadness.

  7. says

    Hi Sandra,
    It’s been 3 months since my mom made her transition. Sadness and grief hit me in waves…a smell, spring flowers, a memory. I do sit with it yet it certainly has colored my world grey.

    • says

      Hi Tess,

      I’m so sorry for your loss. Sadness and grief are without question a process that take time. A tinge of greyness can certain descend into our world as we move through the process. I don’t know if we ever extricate ourselves fully from sadness and grief. They simply become old, familiar friends.

  8. says

    Hi Sandra

    Thanks for sharing this article.

    I think that sadness is not a bad thing to allow in your life. Balance is about moments of happiness and sadness. These are natural feelings to have.

    Allow them to be part of your life, allow them to bring balance in your life. When I feel sad, I stop and think about why. I ponder on the reasons that brought me to this place, the reasons why I am feeling sad, and ways to go forward from there.

    It enables me to reflect on who I am, on my relationships with others, on my purposes in life, and to understand more about how I think and how I act, which then clarifies the motivations behind the way we all act and respond to what life throws at us.

  9. says

    David,

    This is good advice for working with sadness and just about any challenging emotion. It’s always good to press pause and take a look within. I like the way you look a happiness and sadness as a balance. You certainly have a balanced perspective!

  10. says

    Sandra, this is a very unique approach to happiness. And it makes a lot of sense. Sadness, by the way, is not the same thing as depression. I have experienced sadness when a loved one passed away or when a joyous time in my life came to an end. And I have found that reflecting on those sad endings made me appreciate the happy moments within them. And as a songwriter, they have helped me pen some pretty good songs, if I do say so myself. :)

    • says

      Hi Bryan! I love how you say, “reflecting on those sad endings made me appreciate the happy moments within them.” That’s so beautiful. I bet you’ve written some amazing songs.

  11. says

    I also really love #2 – let sadness imbue your being, and let your heart break into a million pieces. So often I’ve tried to instantly dissolve sadness – I’m invincible, it won’t get to me or inhibit me in any way. Perhaps it’s just another form of running away. Other times I have dwelled too long in sadness, trying to analyze its endless faces for truth. That’s when I fall into depression.

    Perhaps today was the day I best handled sadness, for those reasons you ended with. I felt sad, really quite sad, and let myself go with the experience, my heart falling into pieces, painful, but after a few hours of grief, returned to a state of normalcy. All the while, I felt the Invincibility Syndrome bubbling beneath, ready to run away with my emotions as soon as they hit. But I was careful to let sadness have a chance. It was good in the end, I cherished it, as it validated the specialness of my relationship w/bf.

    Thanks so much for this special post, I think it must have helped me out today. :)

    • says

      HI Lynn,

      Thank you for sharing so openly about your experience today. What you’ve said is so true, being “invincible” only works for awhile. In the end, it breaks us into pieces in a different sort of way. I celebrate your courage to look more deeply and your willingness to let the sadness be. I’m glad you were able to cherish it in the end and that it brought a sense of specialness for you. I’m sure your experience will inspire others too.

  12. says

    A beautiful post, Sandra. Profound words. Thank you.
    Sadness breaks your heart into a million pieces but somehow the human spirit has the most unbelievable capacity to pick up those pieces and put them back together time and time again. I’ve learned those lessons in my own unique way. The most important thing, for me, is to realize sadness always brings with it a new perspective. And perspective is a good teacher.
    Your post inspired me to reach out and touch my sadness and share a part of my life with the world in my last blog post. You were not even aware of it. But, thank you for being my inspiration.

    • says

      Tracy,

      Your last blog post touched me so deeply. I felt such a kinship as I read it. I’m glad I brought a little inspiration your way. I’m really grateful too that you have highlighted the incredible resiliency of the human spirit. In the end, everything does boil down to perspective and perspective is something we can keep fine-tuning all along. You have a beautiful heart. Thanks for sharing here today.

  13. says

    Hi Sandra – a visit to your blog has been on my ‘to do’ list for months now and I finally got round to it this morning. I’m so glad I did!

    This post in particular reminded me of something written by the philosopher Anthony Grayling in an essay about ‘loss’. It seems relevant and I hope you don’t mind if I share it with you. It is his response to one particular aspect of the Stoic philosophy that advocates a sort of self-limiting lifestyle to avoid pain:

    “…if one is frugal with one’s emotions – limiting love in order to avoid its pains, stifling appetites and desires in order to escape the price of their fulfilment – one lives a stunted, muffled, bland life only. It is practically tantamount to a partial death in order to minimise the electric character of existence – its pleasures, its ecstasies, its richness and colour matched by its agonies, its wretchedness, its disasters and grief. To take life in armfuls, to embrace and accept it, to leap into it with energy and relish, is of course to invite trouble of all the familiar kinds. But the cost of avoiding trouble is a terrible one: it is the cost of having trodden the planet for humanity’s brief allotment of less than a thousand months, without really having lived.

  14. says

    I think the key when your heart breaks, is finding a way to make it grow back stronger, and choosing the path of compassion over the easier path of callousness.

  15. says

    In college, I knew a girl who had the poem “Separation” by W.S. Merwin tattooed on her back. It’s a short poem, three simple lines: “Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything is stitched with its color.” I didn’t really understand what this meant until I lost a dear friend and constant companion and spent the next year trying to put myself back together. In that year, I gradually realized that sadness and loss could also be catalysts. In trying to fill the gaps, I found that I was reaching out more, taking more risks, moving beyond the complacency of a relationship that had been comfortable and stable for many years. It was a painful lesson, but a valuable one.

    • says

      Hi Jennifer,

      Ah, such a strong short poem! Intense, really. Thank you for sharing these powerful lines. This is another important perspective on sadness and loss, the way it can also be a catalyst for transformation. I appreciate how you’ve shared your personal experience and the positive change it brought for you. Thanks so much.

  16. says

    Hi Sandra, this was a very thoughtful post. I agree with David’s idea about balance. Too much sadness and we are paralyzed, unable to do much. Too much avoidance of sadness, and we mindlessly chase the next superficial pleasure, which only holds off the unpleasant feelings for a short time, and sometimes creates its own problems (like drug abuse).

    I have personally found #1 to be empowering. If your life makes you sad all the time, it’s a hint that you need to change something.

    • says

      Hi Jennifer,

      I too like the middle way of balance! Being paralyzed doesn’t really help. This is a very useful point, “If your life makes you sad all the time, it’s a hint that you need to change something.” It can really help to see that. Thanks for bringing in this perspective.

  17. says

    Yes Sandra, truly sadness can break our heart. But the result — if we stay with it, trust the mirqcle we call life — is a healing and wholeness we might otherwise never have known.

  18. says

    “Sadness Has the Power to Introduce a Crack in Our Idea of Reality”

    that reminds me of Leonard Cohen:

    “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

  19. says

    Hi Sandra,

    I know what you mean when you feel sad just by looking at all that goes on in the world today. There is so much suffering everywhere. But I believe that suffering is necessary to help us grow. After all, the deepest insights to life comes from great suffering. The critical point is whether we can survive the suffering and grow or not.

    Trying to resist suffering when it arises is like an oak tree trying to resist a violent storm. It will put up the fight of its life but eventually the greater force of nature will break it. Instead, we should strive to be like the blade of grass and go with the flow. The grass bends in the face of the storm and reverts to form when it passes.

    Happiness and sadness are part and parcel of life. We cannot appreciate one without the other. Having said that, we should always remember that sadness will not last forever. It is merely a cycle we pass through. When we experience happiness, we should also be aware that it too will pass. With this awareness of the bigger picture, we can take steps to prolong our happiness and to manage our sadness better.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article and for the link to my article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

    • says

      Irving,

      You always offer the most profound wisdom in your comments. Suffering is the unique element in our life that prompts and propels us to grow if we don’t resist it. Your analogy to the oak tree and blade of glass are easy to understand and distinct images that we can recall to mind as reminders. I agree that the more we think of suffering as “bad”, the more suffering we create. The approaches you offer here put suffering into perspective and allow more happiness and freedom into our life. Thank you so much, Irving.

  20. says

    Hi Sandra – your post reminds of Erich Fromm’s quote:

    “One cannot be deeply responsive to the world without being saddened very often.”

    • says

      Thank you for this gift, Leigh. Such a poignant and true quote. And thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. All the best to you.

  21. says

    I did a little research after my earlier comment. The heart broken open quote is by Joanna Macy. The sadness/Buddhist connection is from Chogyam Trungpa’s book, Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior, chapter 3 “The Gentle Heart of Sadness.”

  22. Max says

    My wife left me 3 months ago. My depression and our own individual issues were too much for her. The sadness was indescribable. My world was destroyed. I let the sadness completely consume me, and I found the other side. “Fantasically woken up” describes it perfectly. Life had lost meaning. My choices were suicide, self destruction(drink, drugs, food), and complete reinvention and improvement. After a week of absolute hell, I found the strength to choose the only realistic option- reinvention and improvement. Using every ounce of strength, I have committed to improving every aspect of my life, and the results have been incredible. I have strengthened and reconnected more deeply with my friends and family. The sadness is more of a hand on my shoulder, than the crushing weight of the world. My wife, my true love, is gone forever and will never come back. I am somehow filled with more hope, love, and passion for life than I ever though possible. In time, I hope to recover from her loss. The strength gained from this sadness has improved my life immeasurably.
    Thank you for a wonderful article website.

    • says

      Max,

      I am so sorry for all you have been through. My heart goes out to you for all the pain you have felt. I’m so glad you have found more hope, love, and passion. I wish you well in your recovery and transformation. Thank you for showing us all what it is possible even in the darkest of time. You are an inspiration.

  23. says

    Hi Sandra,
    I just broke up. I still cannot accept this fact. My partner broke up with me because of religion matter. and I always imagine how my partner will be happier without me. How it breaks my heart. I want to be able to see how sadness awakens me, but I still have bad feelings inside and turn out I’m not letting any other feeling to come to me. How should I be?

    Thanks a lot for sharing these words with us.

    • says

      Hi Meutia,

      I’m very sorry for your breakpup and the suffering you feel. I know it’s not easy at all. You can’t force the painful feelings to go away. At the same time though, if we can, it can help not to let our mind go off in more thoughts that create suffering like thinking your partner will be happier without you. The best thing is to try not to think about it too much. Sometimes, when we feel so sad like this we can think of all the other people in the world who are sad and suffering. Sometimes that can help put our own suffering into perspective and help us to know we are not alone. Whatever pain we have right now feels very strong, but it will change and you will see happier days again. Maybe there are some nice things you could do for yourself, to take care of your self. I’m very sorry for your suffering. I hope it begins to ease up soon.

  24. Dani says

    Thanks Sandra,
    Your article is great. I found many people change their attitude positively after they suffered from sadness, but in my recent situation I find the reverse. I have met many people who suffered from sadness then they eventually succeeded–being promoted and achieved the top position. These people did a revenge, they seem very happy to see other people suffering and they have no heart or intention to help. Unfortunately, those mean people want to keep their happiness, by allowing and making other people more suffering. The more other people suffering, the more those mean people happy.

  25. kimberly gartrell says

    Sadness doesn’t help me one bit. I don’t see how you can even write an article stating that sadness is actually healthy for you when it is not. I am in therapy now to get over my sadness.

    • says

      Dear Kimberly,

      I am so sorry for you pain. I fully understand why it’s challenging for you to understand where I am coming from. I wish you the best in overcoming your sadness. I’ve had my fair share of sadness too! But I’m no longer entrapped by it and so I very much hope you find your freedom too.

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