Think back to the last time that you were in a great mood. Maybe you got that job you wanted or were having a great time with friends and family. Maybe your dog did something silly and adorable, or maybe it was just a beautiful day. How did those around you react? Did they try to change the way you felt? Awkwardly avoid eye contact with you? Pretend they didn't notice? Or did they accept your happiness and smile back at you, laugh with you, and compliment you on your cheerful and upbeat demeanor?
Now think back to the last time that you were feeling quite sad. Maybe you lost a loved one, ended a meaningful relationship, or didn't do well at school or work. Maybe it's just been a hard few days. How did those around you react then? Did they accept your pain and sit with you? Compliment you for feeling your feelings? Or did they try to change the way you felt, tell you to cheer up and get over it, avoid you, or pretend that you weren't feeling sad?
Why are these experiences so different?
For the majority of individuals, feeling and expressing happiness is rewarded with positive reinforcement, positive attention, increased social support and presence, and approval.1 In contrast, feeling and expressing sadness is often punished with avoidance, rejection, decreased social support and presence, and disapproval.2 But why? After all, if we can accept the emotion of happiness without trying to change it, why can't we accept the emotion of sadness? Furthermore, don't we actually need more support and acceptance when we are feeling sad than when we are feeling happy?
If you live in a Western society, one reason for this may be that Western societies tend to highly value happiness and view happiness as being healthy, desirable, and something to pursue.1 Inversely, Western societies tend to highly devalue negative emotions such as sadness, fear, or anger- even considering them to be maladaptive, unwanted, and something to be eliminated.2 In other words, although all emotions are necessary, adaptive, and a natural part of the human experience, Western society pressures us to believe that while happiness is good, sadness is bad.
What happens when we feel pressured to not feel sad?
Paradoxically, studies indicate that when we are pressured to feel happy and not sad, we actually feel less happy.3 Additionally, studies indicate that pressure to not experience or to not express negative emotions is correlated with higher levels of loneliness and negative self-image.4 To further examine the effect of social pressure to not feel sad, researchers at the University of Melbourne, University of Amsterdam, and University of Leuven recently conducted a study on 112 adults with elevated scores on a measure of depression.5 The results indicated that experiencing social pressure to not feel sad predicted an increase in depressive symptoms. In other words, feeling as though they shouldn't feel sad lead to participants feeling more depressed. While the results cannot be generalized to those with clinically significant depression, they still highlight the negative effect that eagerly valuing happiness, while rejecting sadness, can have on us. Such findings further highlight the importance of not invalidating your own or others' emotions by conveying the message that sadness is uncomfortable, unacceptable, and something to avoid, as it may only make it worse.
1. Bastian, B., Kuppens, P., Hornsey, M. J., Park, J., Koval, P., & Uchida, Y. (2012). Feeling bad about being sad: The role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion, 12(1), 69-80.
2. Haslam, N. (2005). Dimensions of folk psychiatry. Review of General Psychology, 9(1), 35-47.
3. Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807-815.
4. Bastian, B., Koval, P., Erbas, Y., Houben, M., Pe, M., & Kuppens, P. (2015). Sad and alone: Social expectancies for experiencing negative emotions are linked to feelings of loneliness. Emotion, 6(5), 496-503.
5. Dejonckheere, E., Bastian, B., Fried, I. E., Murphy, S., & Kuppens, P. (2017). Perceiving social pressure not to feel negative predicts depressive symptoms in daily life. Depression & Anxiety.