Why do sad people do happy things

Emotion research : The virtues of sadness

Who would not rather go through life cheerful and hopeful than mean and pessimistic? Man strives to be content, maybe even happy. What we ourselves would like best has been sold to us for several years in advisors, but also as a task we should work on: think positively! Those who succeed in doing this can be read over and over again, they stay healthy (or get back to health more quickly after a serious illness), they come up with more creative problem solutions, act more flexibly, appear more attractive, earn more money and are more popular with their fellow men. Conversely, a depressed mood and self-doubt set a vicious circle in motion.

Sadness is a basic emotion

The psychologist Joseph Paul Forgas from the university in New South Wales, Australia, looks like a friendly, good-humored elderly gentleman. However, he has devoted his entire research life to the question of the usefulness of a bad mood. If negative feelings have such catastrophic effects, so his initial question, why are they so ubiquitous? Why are people subject to mood swings? Why are the six “basic emotions” that psychologists in the wake of the emotion researcher Paul Ekman differentiate, the unpleasant even four represented - as fear, disgust, anger and sadness?

It is immediately obvious that fear and disgust protect us from danger, that anger and anger inspire necessary arguments and help us to assert ourselves in the fight against others. But the sadness? Intuition is initially reluctant to believe that it could also be useful. “On the evolutionary advantages of not-being-too-happy,” Forgas called a book chapter a few years ago in which he summarized his research. There are undeniably many advantages to being in a good mood, "but it is not absolutely desirable," he now writes in the current issue of "The Conversation" magazine.

A good mood makes you more gullible

Forgas can prove this with research results. For example, in a study published in 2008, his working group showed that people become more gullible and less critical of reports from others when they are in a particularly good mood. A somewhat depressed state of mind not only makes you more critical and skeptical, it also seems to have a positive effect on memory. In 2016, the psychologists even showed that bad weather improves memory performance.

The mood may also determine how well we remember crimes as eyewitnesses. In an experiment by the research team, test subjects were initially influenced in their mood by funny or sad short films. They were then shown films about accidents or thefts, with the assertion that a new experiment was beginning. In the interviews that followed, those subjects who were in a more cheerful mood remembered details less well and were more influenced by suggestive questions. Confidently, they thought they remembered details more often that hadn't even appeared in the film.

Those who are sad communicate better

On closer inspection, it is actually not surprising that people in a slightly depressed mood are less influenced by the whispers of others. After all, we all know this from the unsuccessful attempts to cheer others up when they are sad. Also that there is a kind of unshakable, uncritical, situation and argument not too impressive optimism that borders on stupidity is not news.

Even the playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing stated in his tragedy "Emilia Galotti": "If you don't lose your mind about certain things, you have none to lose." Heidelberg doctor and psychotherapist Arnold Retzer even made the categorical statement a few years ago: "Hope can usually only be generated and, above all, maintained if you stay well below your level." However, one should think that more positively thinking people are at least more entertaining. Another result of Forgas ’research is therefore extremely astonishing: Those who are afflicted with mild sadness also communicate better with others.

In a study published in 2013 in the European Journal of Social Psychology, 98 test subjects watched a film scene in which a couple flirted and argued with one another in close succession. Shortly before or shortly after this demonstration, the researchers put the participants in different moods. Then they all told what they had seen. Independent assessors later assessed the quality of these retellings on the basis of recordings. Result: People in a slightly depressed mood tend to focus more on the needs of the audience when telling stories, they are less repetitive, they are less rambling, and they accommodate more important information in less time.

The term depression comes too quickly

Further experiments showed that this lead in communication skills also extended to convincing arguments in debates. The psychologists attribute this to the fact that the slightly negative mood leads to a more attentive and detailed thinking style. Interestingly enough, the motivation for telling and arguing was not dampened in test subjects in this mood. This fits in with the old observation that melancholy and artistic productivity can be a good couple.

At this point, at the latest, it must be said: What researchers call a “bad mood” is not only different from the dreaded “bad mood” that one lets out unchecked on one's own poor relatives, colleagues and friends. Above all, it differs significantly from a full-blown depression that requires treatment, which also has devastating effects on motivation and can make those affected quiet and apathetic.

However, Forgas is convinced that we are too quick to use the term depression today: "In our culture, normal human emotions such as temporary sadness are often treated as pathological disorders." There are actually criteria to distinguish the two from one another.

The relentless search for happiness, of all things, could have what it takes to make us dissatisfied and unhappy. "By raising happiness to heaven and denying the virtues of sadness, we are setting ourselves an unattainable goal," says Forgas. The fact that we can do some things better when we're not in a good mood is a comforting thought.

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