Sadness and Depression This Emotional Life - PBS

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Depression / Blog

 David Mrazek M.D.

David Mrazek M.D.'s Bio

Dr. Mrazek studies the links between genomic variablity and psychiatric illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder.

Sadness and Depression


Sadness is one of the cardinal negative emotions. While every human being has experienced sadness, the intensity of their experiences can vary dramatically. Like all emotions, sadness has an evolutionary advantage that has resulted in it being preserved as an essential part of being human.

Considerable speculation has occurred about the potential evolutionary benefit of sadness. Clearly, the expression of sadness is a powerful communication to those around a grieving friend who is suffering. While signaling sadness to others is often adaptive, sadness also results in individuals withdrawing from everyday responsibilities and provides them an opportunity to begin to recover. 

The greatest cause of sadness is loss. The classic example is the loss of a significant relationship. When we lose a loved one, we describe the intense sadness as grief. We know that grief is universal and that grief plays an important role in helping us to mourn the loss of someone we have loved. 

However, other losses can also precipitate sadness. The loss of a job can result in financial anxiety and the beginning of an existential crisis. Similarly, the impact of giving up on a dream can result in a need to reevaluate goals which can lead to a profound sadness. 

While sadness is unavoidable and a normal part of the human experience, depression is an illness. While people who are depressed are intensely sad, their sadness can seem to emerge without rhyme or reason. Additionally, depression has pathological components that impair the ability of an individual to function. Traditionally, depressive symptoms have been divided into two categories.

Neurovegetative symptoms impact our bodies and most typically include problems with sleep and the loss of appetite and weight. In contrast, neurocognitive symptoms impair the way that we think. Depressed individuals lose hope, lose interest, give up on their aspirations and ultimately see no purpose in life. 

The negative impact of depression today is enormous. However, in the near future, depression is predicted to be the greatest single cause of diminished human potential surpassing all other illnesses including cancer and heart disease. 

While the negative impact of depression has an enormous public health consequence, the good news that has evolved over the past two decades is that our treatments for depression are increasingly effective. Given the fact that many depressed individuals fail to seek treatment, reaching out to people who are depressed and would have a high likelihood of responding to treatment should be a major health priority.