Is there a case against happiness?

The Value of Sadness

Sadness has physical and emotional values.
Sadness has physical and emotional values.

A self-help book on how to become sadder wouldn't even make it to a publisher's desk. Nevertheless, psychologists regard sadness as having a functional value. By turning our attention inward, it provides a space for important reflection. Some researchers have even found that sadness leads to better accuracy in life by reducing tendencies toward false judgments and biases [source: Lewis, Haviland-Jones and Barrett]. The expression of sadness also has a social worth by signaling to others around us that we may need help [source: Begley].

This form of healthy, normal sadness is distinguished from melancholia, or depression, by having apparent roots [source: Horwitz and Wakefield]. It comes on as the result of an emotional event or loss, rather than emerging on its own. And unlike depression, which is characterized by unproductiveness, sadness has qualitative benefits. When we're sad, we're more prone to take stock of our lives and revise certain aspects of it. For instance, heart-wrenching break-ups are often followed by personal re-evaluations. In this state, someone may decide to focus more on his or her career, get in shape or relocate. This agitating facet of sadness is precisely why some argue that there is such a thing as being too happy.

A study in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that beyond moderation, happiness actually has detrimental effects on income, career success, education and political participation [source: Begley]. Surveying more than 118,000 people in 96 countries, psychologists found that people who reported being "moderately happy," rather than "very happy," were better educated, wealthier and more politically engaged [source: Chatzky]. The logic follows that people who are happy as clams are wholly content with their current situation. Consequently, they don't have as much internal drive to climb the ladder to success.

Consider the protective effects of fear. It jolts us into action to get out of the way of danger and avoid predators. Although fear isn't a pleasant sensation, without it, we'd be far more vulnerable to injury and harm. Likewise, a touch of sadness shakes us up a bit and encourages progress. A study conducted by finance scholars at Duke University demonstrated this practical advantage. It found that the most optimistic people make poor financial planners; banking on a sunny future, they overspend [source: Chatzky].

If Elvis had been a happier guy, things might've worked out better with Priscilla, and he might still be around today. Then again, whatever dissatisfaction was stirring in his soul in Memphis, Tenn., on a steamy summer day in 1953 gave a nameless kid a push to become a King.

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  • Begley, Sharon. "Happiness: Enough Already." Newsweek. Feb. 11, 2008. (May 14, 2009)
  • Cave, Steve. "The Up Side of Down." Financial Times. Aug. 9, 2008.
  • Chatzky, Jean. "Want to Be Rich? Don't Get Too Happy." CNNMoney. June 2008. (May 14, 2009)
  • Horwitz, Allan V. and Wakefield, Jerome C. "The Loss of Sadness." Oxford University Press. 2007. (May 14, 2009)
  • Lewis, Michael; Haviland-Jones, Jeanette M.; and Barrett, Lisa Feldman. "Handbook of Emotions." Guilford Press. 2008. (May 14, 2009)
  • Wilson, Eric G. "Against Happiness." Macmillan. 2009. (May 19, 2009)