In a Twitter account called So Sad Today, the American writer Melissa Broder has been sending out snippets of her daily inner life since 2012. Broder writes about mundane sadness – ‘waking up today was a disappointment’ or ‘what you call a nervous breakdown i call oops, accidentally saw things as they are’– and she is brutally honest about her own shortcomings (‘whoops, hurt myself conforming to socially accepted standards of beauty that i know are false but still feel compelled to fit into’ or ‘just felt a flicker of self-esteem and was like what the fuck is this’). ‘
The account has become a sensation, winning her more than 675,000 followers, and Broder’s book of personal essays about her mental-health battles, also named So Sad Today, appeared in 2016.
It’s startling that Broder’s unabashed expression of sadness – and all the shitty emotions – has struck such a nerve in a world where people’s social media profiles are immaculately curated to show their happiest selves. But clearly the growing rates of depression worldwide mean that we are struggling to be happy.
Are we doing something wrong? Broder’s popularity should compel us to cast a new look at sadness and its cousins. Perhaps we should consider realigning ourselves with the Romantics, who as a group found solace in freely expressing emotions in poetry. In his ‘Ode on Melancholy’ (1820), for example, John Keats wrote: ‘Ay, in the very temple of Delight, / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine’. Pain and joy are two sides of the same coin – both are necessary for a fully lived life.
Keats might have had Robert Burton in mind here, the 17th-century priest and scholar whose hefty volume The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) described how sadness might go into overdrive (something we’ve come to understand as clinical depression) and how to cope with it. Or various self-help books from the 16th century, which, according to Tiffany Watt Smith, a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, ‘try to encourage sadness in readers by giving them lists of reasons to be disappointed’. Could it be that the path leading to true happiness goes via sadness?
Recent research suggests that experiencing not-so-happy feelings actually promotes psychological wellbeing. A study published in the journal Emotion in 2016 took 365 German participants aged 14 to 88. For three weeks, they were handed a smartphone that put them through six daily quizzes on their emotional health. The researchers checked in on their feelings – be they negative or positive moods – as well as how they perceived their physical health in a given moment.
Prior to these three weeks, the participants had been interviewed about their emotional health (the extent to which they felt irritable or anxious; how they perceived negative moods), their physical health and their habits of social integration (did they have strong relationships with people in their lives?) After the smartphone task was over, they were quizzed about their life satisfaction.
The team found that the link between negative mental states and poor emotional and physical health was weaker in individuals who considered negative moods as useful. Indeed, negative moods correlated with low life satisfaction only in people who did not perceive adverse feelings as helpful or pleasant.