The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Someone takes you by the hand: “Something terrible has happened.”

After the SHOCK, something else sets in—a sunken, exhausted feeling. The mind sags. The limbs crumple. There is no need, not anymore, for energy: getting angry, attempting to change things, that time is over. Sadness may silence us—what else is there to say?—or we may seek out consolation with talking and tears. However it appears in our lives, sadness is one of the emotions that comes closest to resignation and acceptance. It’s there when the irreversible happens: when we lose something or someone, and nothing can be done to get them back.

From its earliest incarnations, sadness—from the Old English sæd (sated), and with overtones of the Latin satis (satisfied)—has been associated with having had one’s fill. “I am a lonely thing,” confesses the weary battle shield who narrates one of the Riddles in the tenth-century Exeter Book, “wounded with iron / smitten by sword, sated (sæd) with battle work.” In this sense, sadness was not understood as a depressed or lowered emotional state, but as an excess that edged toward BOREDOM.

Sadness was a very popular topic in the Renaissance, as popular as happiness is today. It was the relationship between sadness and weight that most intrigued the period’s doctors and philosophers. Physicians argued an excess of a dense substance, or humor, called black bile caused sadness, weighing the body down and making the sorrowful clumsy, their faces drooping and gait slow. But this physical heaviness was also thought to make one’s character weightier—so that sadness equated with being more sober, resolute and steadfast. Protestant theologians argued that since sorrow literally weighed a person down, it humbled them—from Latin humus (earth) (see: HUMILIATION). They delineated a particular category of sadness called “godly sorrow,” a beneficial grief that came with recognizing one’s spiritual failings and unworthiness before God.

A familiarity with gloom was also widely thought of as an emotional training, a lesson in resilience. In his Castell of Helth, a medical treatise and early self-help manual written in 1539, English lawyer Thomas Elyot urged readers to familiarize themselves with other people’s sorrow to better tolerate their own. He offered lengthy descriptions of the causes of sadness—from the ingratitude of children to the failure to be promoted. In this sense, among early moderns, familiarity with normal sadness was regarded as a protective factor against its more serious manifestations—the illness of melancholia (see: MELANCHOLY), or suicidal DESPAIR.

It’s hard to imagine Elyot’s Castell of Helth being taken up too enthusiastically by today’s self-help publishers. A list of reasons to be somber is unlikely to make the best-seller list. Yet, the idea that we might have to learn the art of sadness—how to experience its many flavors, and how to endure it too—does have a resonance today. Among those who fear we are forgetting how to be sad are the psychiatrists Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield, authors of The Loss of Sadness (2007). They discuss the widely acknowledged “epidemic” of depression. Dismissing the claim that this is to do with the greater pressures of twenty-first-century living, they argue that the stratospheric rise in the number of people diagnosed with depression is the result of overdiagnosis. And this overdiagnosis is itself the consequence of an inadequate description of major depressive disorder in the widely used American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM). They are not arguing depression does not exist: it does, and from its sluggish apathy to blank, annihilating despair, it is truly debilitating. Their contention is that some people are being diagnosed as depressed when, in fact, they are sad, and this overdiagnosis is the only thing able to account for the startling jump in cases.

The first edition of the DSM was published in 1952, amid growing criticism of the lack of continuity in mental health diagnoses. To avoid theoretical wrangling about the causes of mental illness—was it the result of brain chemistry, social injustice or family trauma?—the DSM spoke only of symptoms, leaving out context altogether. However, this meant the old distinction between pathology and passion, which had traditionally distinguished illnesses like melancholia from ordinary sadness, was erased. Anyone who had experienced five out of the nine symptoms for at least two weeks, could be diagnosed with major depressive disorder—even if their depressed mood, decreased appetite, insomnia and so on had a reasonable explanation, such as the loss of a job or the end of a relationship. The earlier editions of the DSM did include a “grief clause,” which meant that people could not be diagnosed with depression within two months of losing a loved one. But controversially the DSM-V, published in 2013, has dropped this exclusion too, and in this way, the old distinction between understandable and unwarranted sadness has been erased—in the diagnostic classification, at least. This is not just a matter for the consulting room: the DSM’s description of what constitutes depression trickles down into health education in schools, and appears on publicly funded health websites and in magazine articles. With opportunities for self-diagnosis rising (see: CYBERCHONDRIA), and our GPs pressed for time, the desire to find a clinical diagnosis seems to be growing. And with this emphasis on providing an answer comes a failure to accept sadness as a natural consequence of being alive.

Is there anything inherently wrong with wanting to make bad feelings go away? Perhaps not. But the antidepressants of choice today—Prozac and the other SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)—do have side effects, and don’t always work. More importantly, seeing sadness as a problem to be medicated away might leave us poorly equipped to manage in the future. For the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, overprescribing has a corrosive effect, sending a message that “pain can’t be borne, lived through and tolerated,” and robbing us of an ability to recognize sorrow as an enriching part of life. “It is our responses to adverse circumstances that make us human, and our capacity to survive these feelings and grow through and from them is part of what constitutes maturity,” she writes. Crucially, when sadness is eclipsed by the diagnosis of depression, we become even less willing to acknowledge that we’re feeling sad at all, fearing it will impede our success in the world, or that we’ll be tainted by the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. And this repression of sadness may well make it worse.

With its feelings of satiety and acceptance, its quietness and even APATHY, sadness, as distinct from depression, is an important part of our lives. It’s the process through which we gather up ourselves to adjust to a new version of ourselves after loss or DISAPPOINTMENT. It protects us while we rest, and gives us strength. At the very least, as was well known in the sixteenth century, if we see sadness as an unfamiliar, strange creature, we will be less resilient in the face of it—and far more vulnerable to its more serious manifestations as a result.

See also: GRIEF.