Our Cultural Loss of Sadness

DIGITAL IMAGEIt’s okay to be sad. Sadness is a normal part of human experience, everyone gets sad. It seems, however, that we are culturally not very comfortable with sadness. We not only turn away from our own experiences of sadness but we encourage and pressure others not to feel sadness either. We medicate sadness, diagnose it as a disorder, and urge others to get “treated” for their experience of sadness. This trend is disastrous for us as humans. Sadness is normal and right. We must recovery an understanding of true, normal sadness.

Ours has been called the “age of depression” (see D.G. Blazer, The Age of Melancholy). Over the past several decades American culture in particular has seen a steady, sometimes dramatic, increase in the number of diagnosed cases of major depression. Between 1987 and 1997 there was an increase of 300%. Between 1980 and early 2000 researchers saw an increase in treatment for depression of 76%. That’s a 76% increase in just 20 years. And the rates continue to go up. At present we see nearly 10% of adults in the U.S. each year are afflicted by Major Depression, and roughly a fifth of the whole population at some point in their lives experiences it as well. These are staggering statistics that cannot simply be explained by a better method of diagnosis in modern psychiatry. Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield explain that the real rise in diagnosis stems largely from ignoring the distinction between normal and disordered sadness. They write:

We argue that the recent explosion of putative depressive disorder, in fact, does not stem primarily from a real rise in this condition. Instead, it is largely a product of conflating the two conceptually distinct categories of normal sadness and depressive disorder and thus classifying many instances of normal sadness as mental disorders. The current “epidemic,” although the result of many social factors, has been made possible by a changed psychiatric definition of depressive disorder that often allows the classification of sadness as disease, even when it is not. (The Loss of Sadness, 6)

The changed definition they are referring to is that of the DSM III. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was developed to bring stability and uniformity to the diagnosis of mental disorders by highlighting the common, recurring, symptoms that add up to demarcate a specific mental disorder. It’s an incredibly useful tool, and yet, as Horwitz and Wakefield point out, it has serious flaws. Particularly in its lack of attention to social context. That is to say, when intense sadness can be best explained by a specific social context it should not be deemed a disorder.

The authors give examples to help clarify the distinction. When a 35-year-old single female professor experienced the ending of a 5 year passionate romantic relationship she became sad. Her sadness, though intense, had an understandable cause: the loss of the relationship. Her symptoms subsided over time as she began to move on with her life. Her sadness, in other words, was normal. A 64-year-old married man “developed feelings of sadness and emptiness, lack of pleasure in activities, insomnia, fatigue and lack of energy, and feelings of worthlessness” after he lost his job of twenty years only six months before he would qualify for the company’s generous retirement benefits (10). His sadness was real, his pain deep, but it had a cause. Furthermore his sadness was consistent with the cause. Finally, they highlight a 60-year-old mother who experienced enduring sadness after learning that her daughter had a life-threatening disease. Her sadness, again, made sense in light of her circumstances and was consistent with its causation. To misdiagnose these people would mean to treat their sadness as though it were not normal, to treat it in ways that would not ultimately be helpful, and to treat it in ways that was not ultimately necessary.

This cultural loss of sadness has not only meant an increase in misdiagnosed cases of depression, it has also meant an increase in personal isolation. That is to say, as we have come to view sadness as less of a normal response, people are increasingly uncomfortable with another’s sorrow. We become awkward and trite in our responses to one another’s pain. We see this most clearly at funerals, but it happens in a myriad of situations. Lose your job? Don’t worry, when God closes a door he opens a window. Going through a break-up? There’s plenty of fish in the sea, you’ll meet the right person. And if sorrow lingers too long (as deemed by our friends) then they will even encourage us to see psychiatric care, go on medication, or get counseling. Such responses not only perpetuate the “sadness is unnatural” mentality, but they compound the isolation of the individual. When friends try to talk us out of our sorrow we feel even more alone, more abnormal, more disordered. We need friends who can grieve with us, love us, and help us bear a load. We do not need friends who say, “suck it up.”

Sadness is healthy for us at a certain level. Sorrow brings about good emotional and psychological benefits. Charles Hodges lists three specific benefits of normal sadness. “Normal sadness draws support to the sufferer,” he states (Good Mood, Bad Mood, 67). Normal sadness draws our friends close as they see and understand some level of our pain. We receive love, encouragement, and comfort from those who share our broken heart. It also serves a “protective function by limiting our losses”. Hodges explains:

There are times where continuing to fight may only result in further harm, so sadness and the lack of energy that goes with it have a useful purpose. The man who leaves his job in a dispute because he does not have the will to fight may avoid the pain of hanging around to be fired. (68)

Finally, he observes that normal sadness enables us to “quit doing things that are failing.” Sadness may keep us from wasting energy and time on things that don’t work, and that’s a good function of sorrow as well.

We need to recover a proper perspective on normal sadness. Sadness is common and healthy. It can lead to change, comfort, and relational growth. It reminds us that the world is broken and needs a savior. To treat all sadness as disordered leads to significant harm in the sufferers of sadness and it can significantly diminish the quality of our lives, which needs sadness. This is not suggest that depression is not a real thing. It most assuredly is. There is disordered sadness that needs a different kind of attention and care. But treating all sadness the same is not healthy. It’s okay to be sad, friends. We need to accept this once again.

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