In our modern culture, sadness is not frequently appreciated. Sadness is labeled as a “problem emotion” that has to be held at bay or erased in self-help publications, which stress the benefits of positive thinking, optimistic attitude, and positive activities.
But evolution must have had something different in mind, otherwise melancholy would not be with us now. Being unhappy from time to time serves some function in assisting our species’ survival. While other so-called “negative emotions,” such as fear, anger, and disgust, appear to be obviously adaptive, preparing our species for flight, combat, or avoidance, respectively, the evolutionary advantages of sorrow have been more difficult to understand…until lately, that is.
Here are some of the ways that melancholy may be useful.
1. Sadness can help you remember things better.
In one field investigation, we discovered that participants had a substantially greater memory of details of things they had seen in a shop on wet, miserable days that produced a negative mood. In a comparable setting, people’s recall was considerably less accurate on bright, sunny days when they felt cheerful. Positive mood appears to reduce attention and recall for incidental elements in our surroundings, whilst negative mood appears to increase it.
In another experiment, my colleagues and I gave participants either a snapshot of a vehicle accident or a wedding party scene.
Later, in order to change their mood, we invited individuals to recount joyful or sad events from their past. They were then given questions regarding the photographs that had been modified such that they either included or did not contain misleading or deceptive information, such as “Did you spot the stop sign at the scene?”—when there was no stop sign, simply a yield sign. We next assessed their eyewitness recall and discovered that individuals in a negative mood were better able to retain original details while rejecting deceptive information, whereas those in a high mood made more errors.
This experiment demonstrates a fundamental psychological fact: what we recall about the past may be significantly influenced by future disinformation. Negative mood appears to lower the risk that later erroneous information may corrupt the original recollection.
As a result, being in the appropriate frame of mind can aid in the improvement of our memories. Happiness, according to our research, leads in less focused and attentive processing, which increases the likelihood of erroneous information being stored into memory, whereas a negative mood promotes attention to detail and results in improved memory.
2. Sadness can help you make better decisions.
Humans are continuously making social judgements, attempting to interpret social clues in order to comprehend and anticipate the thoughts and behaviors of others. Unfortunately, these assessments are frequently incorrect, due in part to a variety of shortcuts and biases that might lead us astray.
We regularly discover that when people are joyful, they are more prone to make social misjudgments due to biases. When participants in one study were asked to detect deception in videotaped statements of people accused of theft (who were either guilty or not guilty), those in negative moods were more likely to make guilty judgments—but they were also significantly better at distinguishing between deceptive and truthful suspects.
In another experiment, participants judged the likely veracity of 25 true and 25 false general knowledge trivia assertions before being notified whether each claim was true or false. Only sad individuals were able to accurately differentiate between the genuine and deceptive claims they had seen earlier two weeks later. Those in better moods rated all previously witnessed assertions as accurate, showing that a good mood increases—and a bad mood decreases—the inclination to assume that what is familiar is genuinely true.
Sad moods reduce other common judgmental biases, such as “the fundamental attribution error,” in which people attribute intentionality to others’ behavior while ignoring situational factors, and the “halo effect,” in which judges assume a person with one positive feature, such as a handsome face, has others, such as kindness or intelligence. Negative emotions can also lessen primacy effects, which occur when people place too much attention on early information and neglect later details.
3. Sadness might help you become more motivated.
When we are joyful, we naturally want to keep that sensation going. Happiness tells us that we are in a secure and familiar environment, and that little effort is required to change anything. Sadness, on the other hand, acts as a moderate warning signal, causing us to exert more effort and drive to cope with a problem in our surroundings.
As a result, people who are happier are sometimes less driven to push themselves toward action than people who are unhappy, who are more motivated to make effort to improve their unpleasant state.
We put this to the test by showing participants either happy or sad videos, followed by a tough cognitive challenge with several challenging questions. There was no time restriction, so we could analyze their endurance by calculating the total amount of time they spent on the questions, the number of questions they answered, and the number of questions they answered correctly. We discovered that individuals in a good mood spent less time, attempted fewer items, and earned fewer accurate answers than people in a bad mood, who spontaneously exerted more effort and obtained higher outcomes.
This shows that a sad mood might promote endurance with tough activities while a joyful mood can decrease it, probably because people are less motivated to expend effort when they are already in a good mood.
4. In certain circumstances, sadness might improve interactions.
In general, happiness promotes beneficial interpersonal connections. People who are happy are more confident, aggressive, and skilled communicators; they smile more, and they are typically seen as more pleasant than people who are depressed.
A sorrowful mood, on the other hand, may aid in situations when a more cautious, less forceful, and more attentive communication approach is required. In one research, after seeing a joyful or sad film, participants were abruptly requested to travel to an adjacent office and seek a file from a person there. Their requests were secretly captured by a hidden tape recorder. According to the findings, individuals in a sad state made more polite, complex, and hedging inquiries, whereas those in a good mood made more straightforward and less polite demands.