Choosing Sadness: The Irony of Depression

I knew a man some years ago who suffered from serious and chronic depression. He also lived what seemed to me a melancholy life, listening to sad, sentimental music, reading dreary existential novels, and rarely venturing out of his dark and gloomy house. I cared for this man, and I was perplexed by this. I knew that he suffered from a debilitating disease, but he also didn’t seem to be taking simple steps that might lift his mood. It was almost like he was choosing sadness.

This seems like an ungenerous thought, I know, but it turns out there may be some truth to it. Hebrew University psychological scientist Maya Tamir and her colleagues have been studying how people with depression regulate their emotions, and they may have an explanation for my acquaintance’s paradoxical and forlorn lifestyle choices.

Emotional regulation is the process of changing one’s current emotions into more desirable ones. We all do it all the time. It’s well known and not all that surprising that depressed people have difficulty with emotion regulation, but Tamir believes that we have been looking at emotion dysregulation the wrong way. Specifically, we’ve been assuming that depression is linked to deficits in regulation strategies, when in fact the problem may have to do with regulation goals.

The distinction between strategies and goals is crucial. Some strategies are adaptive and others not. For example, cognitive reappraisal is a healthy strategy for most people, one that involves rethinking and changing the meaning of situations so that they generate different emotions. Situation selection is another—choosing positive stimuli like movies and music. Rumination, very common in depression, is an example of a maladaptive regulation strategy. There is some evidence that depressed people use maladaptive strategies, but Tamir thinks that focusing on the effectiveness of emotional regulation may be missing the point.

The problem may be more basic. It may instead be that depressed people are choosing the wrong emotion regulation goal to begin with. That is, depressed people may be effective enough in regulating their emotions, but they may be choosing to regulate in a direction that reinforces their negative mood. This raises the possibility that depressed people are actually more motivated to experience unpleasant emotions like sadness, as strange as this sounds.

Tamir and her colleagues tested this provocative idea is a few experiments. In one, for example, they asked depressed and healthy subjects to choose between looking at sad pictures or amusing ones (or neutral ones). So all the subjects were using the same stimuli selection strategy, but the depressed subjects still chose significantly more of the sad images—even though they clearly had the option of avoiding them. In a second similar study, subjects chose music, and again depressed subjects chose to listen to sad tunes more often than healthy controls did, even when upbeat music was available. Finally, even when depressed subjects were explicitly trained to reappraise situations in more positive ways, they chose not to use the strategy as often as healthy controls.

So across studies, as reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, depressed subjects clearly chose to engage with stimuli that caused them moderate to intense sadness. The findings show that depressed individuals, compared to healthy controls, regulate their emotions in a manner that is likely to maintain sadness. But they did not choose to decrease happiness. They chose more happy images than sad images, and what’s more, they said they preferred happiness to sadness.

So why, if they prefer happiness, would they deliberately choose regulatory goals that undermine that happiness? One possibility, the scientists say, is that depressed people use emotion regulation to verify their emotional selves. In other words, sadness is more familiar to depressed people, so they are motivated to experience sadness as a way of reaffirming who they are. Depression is also closely tied to low self-esteem, and it may be that depressed people believe that they deserve to feel bad.

My depressed friend wanted relief from his misery, sometimes desperately. He struggled, yet ironically, he often acted in ways that maintained—rather than alleviated—his misery. Apparently he’s not alone in this sad choice.

Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting on psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.


‘–to verify…’

More specifically, as depression may begin at a time when we have not developed our cognitive selves in any material way, and, added to this is the survival impulse which instructs that we, ourselves, must solve this perplexing, even mysterious personal drama, there abides in us an essential inclination to *verify*–in what is likely to be a limited way–as much of the characteristics of this, our innate ‘enemy.’

That is–and, at least initially–we may not have the wherewithal to address the depression in the most effective way, e.g., to analyse accurately, disencumber ourselves from immediate issues that usually arise in order to address the ‘main event,’ get out of harm’s way, etc., so that, invariably, we repeat the very first inclination–verifying–so as to, at the very least, not lose ‘contact’ with the upset within.

This is akin to an inarticulate speaker attempting some semblance of good communication, but lacking those skills, s/he dwells on salient terms, pausing to repeat with added vocal stress on just the one word or phrase, sometimes several times in a row.

The initial trauma served to inculcate the earliest ‘weapons,’ and this early self-training abides…an emotional heuristic that becomes a well-worn rut: verify what is happening, confirm it, label it, know the enemy, etc.

Unfortunately, the ‘know-the-enemy’ tactic, though probably initially consoling for the hurting subject, turns out to be a less than adequate long-term answer to the issue at hand

The way out, it would seem, is to consider what it means to be a complete Self. The early depression trauma has likely stunted any holistic development of a fully human Self, so that s/he must now realize that addressing the depression via verification/confirmation is the merest first reaction, and not a programme for Being, let alone a design for living out one’s life potential, which fully-functioning resourceful Self will then displace the vulnerable, nascent, impoverished Self which yet abides…

Lana: Love and Truth are precious, earnestly seek them. There is an over-soul. There is no death. Eternity lies before us, yet we are enshrouded with hurt. Why do we hurt? Seek.

I’ve never commented anyone before, but I decided to reply to you bc it’s short and sweet…. I happen to believe people choose to hurt nc they are not educated on that subject. I used to choose hurt from my mother all my life, I hated myself for it, but then when I was able to sit still long enough to focus on getting educated about different personalities and why they do The things that they do, my hurt and my hatred and bitterness, slowly began to fade. But when she died all of that poison controlling my life , went in the grave with her. And now I understand . And I finally am able to forgive her and become who I really am with all my personality and talents I never knew I had. Fuck I feel amazing. And I have my mother to thank for it..

I said this was short and sweet didn’t I?

I’m happy for you.. Same is the case with me. I just want everyone to know that abusive parents aren’t only the ones who drink or physically abuse you.. Hurting someone emotionally, never appreciating them, shattering their kid’s self esteem by demotivating words. That’s what abusive is, for me. I can’t think of her dying but I guess that’ll be my only way out..

It is perfectly healthy for a normal person to on occasion crave melancholy. I don’t know why but it’s somethibg that happens to me periodically. I’m 57 years old and sometimes out of the blue i will crave feeling melancholy and play a haunting song just to feel that way. I don’t understand it but it happens and i think I’m perfectly normal. lol

So I listen to Pink Floyd and read Sartre, and don’t take Zoloft because I think depression is normal.
This is nothing new although unusual in society flooded with antidepressant taking people.
Question is : Why do they want to be happy?
(Hapiness is gone once you realize your mortality.)

Haha! This is the awesome truth Lana!!

On the contrary, realising our mortality often makes people realise that every moment is precious, therefore even the smallest things, like breathing, smelling, and seeing, waking up in the morning, bring them joy. Life is a gift, when you know how precious it is. Perspective and a change of heart changes. It is a choice though.

Could this possibly mean that we are not raising children well enough by not giving them the emotional regularity skills they need to be happy? Are we not teaching them what happiness is? And why would a person reinforce those negative feels if they have the emotional regulatory skills they need to be happy. How would one go about changing their focus? I seem to just be filled with questions. I think depression is only normal if its a temporary feeling of depression that can be self regulated, thus allowing a person to feel more then just depression all the time.

One of the reasons that I choose to be low is as a sort of self preservation response. Like when some flowers are threatened, their petals will close for a time. For me, when I’m impacted by a situation where my thoughts have become low on myself, I’ll stay in the low place for a while, a few hours. This is my safeguard against having to move from a good to a low place again when threatened. As my petals reopen, I feel humble. I cannot be hurt because I am no longer worried about myself, but now empathetic toward others’ feelings.

Well, so what would be a good way to fix these choices? I mean, what i could do, for example? I feel i’m like choosing to stay depressed, i can’t get out, i still keep being angry and sad, i don’t know what happiness feels like…

Hi, I feel exactly what you wrote below….

Well, so what would be a good way to fix these choices? I mean, what i could do, for example? I feel i’m like choosing to stay depressed, i can’t get out, i still keep being angry and sad, i don’t know what happiness feels like…

Do you feel better now? And, if so, how did you get there?

Thank you for your time

Well put article. It would be better if solutions were included too . Like the guy up there is saying, what to do next? Might be obvious to exercise choosing happy regulating emotion but still i feel i need a “how to”. Just my thoughts. sorry for my English.

Few possibilities: “the evil I know is better than the evil I do not know”. Thusly a way to avoid being anxious or fearful.
Another possibility is that they have hormone imbalances and the more subdued stimuli offers a weakened adrenal/thyroid etc. system more protection.
The more depressing stimuli is already in a state which renders no further possibility where a positive stimuli has the possibility of going in many mental directions. This could tax a fragile hormonal system. Too much expectation. Better to live life in a “flat” manner as a way of protection.

“Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey. But, sorrow is at least an arriving.”

Alan Paton

I find myself in this trap, right now.

Somehow, when you get depressed, and everything begins to look ugly and feel bad, it becomes more important to affirm the truth of this feeling than to “be happy.”

Perhaps there was a component of disillusionment that also takes place when depression moves in, accounting for the shift in world view.

Deep down, I can’t help but wonder whether people generally would rather be right than be happy.

So just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If you’re depressed, it’s your own fault. You can choose (evidently) to not be. Get out of your head. Stop moping. Fix yourself.

I say that to myself every day. E-v-e-r-y day. And I pray that one day soon I won’t wake up so I won’t have to say it again.

Why would you say that to yourself? That’s completely untrue and is so incredibly inaccurate of depressed people…

There is an entrance to depression, an event or occurance, that tells your Self to feel depressed. Therefore, please know that there is an equally strong opposing potential. That is the simple yet very effective strategy (perhaps it is a coping skill?) I have learned. Choose to change your mind. Think outside of the box (of depression) into which you have somehow chosen to place yourself. You may never be able to fix other people, but you can willfully and beautifully choose to fix yourself. Nobody else can. Choose to be the best and do the best that you can. If somebody else has a problem with you, it’s their choice.

Neaely all the people thag ive known said that being sad is a choice but why would sadness not be a choice and happiness be one…..feeling heppy and sad are both emotions that you can control…you choose to remain sad..with all my love hoping that one day youll be fine.

Emotions are NOT controllable. Happiness is not a choice and neither is sadness. Emotions happen because that’s our perceptions at work. You obviously have never been depressed, why are you here?

Okay, FIRST OF ALL Sadness is not a CHOICE I don’t choose to be sad all the time, OKAY! it’s just how I relate to things sad pictures,”sad music”, it is how I relate to things how I feel and how the song is represented to me (the actual meaning of the song) which I try to figure out so I can actually understand the person behind the voice’s feelings and what they’ve been through, again it’s how I relate and sadness just comes to me I don’t choose it and triggers that make it worse, it just happens

Wonderful, amazing. To the point. I guess what’ve been described in here is so deep and make sence. I reached to this article when searching the subject “should we go out of sadness”. The answer is clear. Now I need help. How to conquer this inclination to wanting/ choosing sadness!!!

I became interested in this subject when I walked into work and my co worker. ( who is normally pretty depressing) was listening to angry and sad music at 6:15 AM. I like to start my day out happy. But I get his point. We cling to the emotions we are feeling. It’s what we know, and sometimes we are afraid that even if we try to make ourselves happy. It won’t work making us even sadder. I had a bad few weeks about a year ago where nothing I did would make me happy. I went and ate dinner and saw movies with friends and could hardly smile even though I wanted to. It made me even sadder that I couldn’t be happy even with good friends and doing activities that I loved. My friends also criticized me for being a downer. I eventually went outside got lots of sunlight and started to go into nature more and that helped dramatically. Just a theory on why we may stick closer to sad pictures or sad songs. Thank you for reading.

Thank you for your post. When I have been severely depressed it has been because I felt hopeless, trapped, like I cant win, like I am being controlled. I hate those feelings.

Life is a series of growing closer to others and then growing apart slowly. But as we age we lose more close relatives and friends due to natural death.The sadness is the loss of a dear friend. Sadness becomes a major part of us. In Spanish the word is Triste to sound like Christ. Depression is knowing the fact that those we loved are no we feed ourselves feel good words lk

Sadness, fear and anger are the only emotions I really feel, so maybe i listen to sad music to feel that emotion to a higher level. We all need to feel something, but anger and fear are too negative and not emotions that most of us want to feel on purpose.

When you’re sad, happy things just seem so disgustingly fake and obnoxious. Being this dark, mysterious, brooding figure has so much more appeal to me; it gives me this power that I can’t get anywhere else. If I try to avoid it, if I avoid anything that would trigger it, I end up no happier, but empty and emotionless. It makes me feel like I have no purpose in life, like I don’t know who I am, like I’m watching life move by me without any way for me to control it. So I stay sad. I like having power, I like feeling real emotions, and I’m willing to sacrifice my non-existent happiness for it.

This is in reply to Ruth Grayburg back from May 2018

At first when reading your post I got upset, thinking you must not understand true clinical depression. But then your last thought said it all. It speaks loudly and with familiarity. Every day you tryfrom the moment you wake up work to not choose sad.That’s exhausting. So exhausting that you just don’t want to do it again.

I truly understand. Even taking medication for depression and bipolar disorder I struggle with those thoughts in bouts. I hope that you have people in your life who get it, and even if they don’t, are supportive I hope that you have found a way to manage this and for even a brief period of time those thoughts dissipate a little.

Sending you understanding thoughts and virtual hugs.


We perhaps need for ourselves some breaks and care less about our thoughts and emotions. Shift emotions is wonderful talent, or skill. Choose to move on, forget all about them, and have no obligation to change things happened are wise ways out of doomed trap. It is not easy but eventually we do.

Sadness is familiar. A comfort zone. A way of knowing you can’t be let down by anything else because you’ve prepared yourself for it. Despite people trying to make you happy, you feel safer in that pit but it can never be understood by most.

As a person diagnosed with acute depression,I would like to pitch in here as to the reason of the aforementioned choice.

I agree that I deliberately choose to watch/listen to depressing things or movies with sad endings. When I do, I feel less alone, I feel understood.
Moreover watching or listening to things that portray other people as happy increase feelings of being alone in the struggle, remind me of what I don’t have and also cause jealousy and bitterness. With debilitating depression those feelings are difficult to control and one involuntarily acts on them. This in turn leads to guilt. Instead of getting help you become the jealous, bitter person no one wants to be around and they will not mince their words.

Lastly, feeling happy is dangerous, because the depression claws it’s way back in. The higher you climb the farther you will fall, the worse it hurts. I guarantee that. It’s safer to stay in the depression zone, so you learn how to live with it.

For someone with long term acute depression or manic depression this is how it works. Depression medication has so many side effects it’s almost poison. Therapists are also human,they sometimes say the wrong things.

All that said, if you have suddenly noticed mental health issues creeping up on you, by all means fight it and do whatever you can before choosing to learn how to live with it.

There is a fatal flaw in this study. They only used depressed people when depressed. When in the grip of depression of course generally you are in such a bad place sad or not fantastic stuff vibes with you more and or is more comforting. That’s still not an ACTIVE healthy choice but yet another SYMPTOM of a depression. To confirm the findings one would need to find people with depression who are currently reporting it to be In “remission” i.e. they aren’t suffering from depression and are morewhat they consider to be their in depressed state. I think one may find in a statistically significant number that those do NOT choose sad items. Besides depression is so much more than just being sad which is a visible symptom but it is a serious debilitating illness which this study and article dangerously depict back towards the myth of blaming the person suffering from it.

I completely agree with Mike. Wanting or choosing to be sad is a symptom of depression not a cause. Furthermore, ANY emotional state is preferable to the blankness of severe clinical depression. Sadness is a little easier to access than the other emotions and brings a sense of release and catharsis. Also accessing art that recognises those feelings brings a sense of connection which is again often absent in severe depression. The article is extremely limited, ill informed and inaccurate.

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.