S2E27 Sadness

As Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete return from a short summer hiatus, they open up the second half of Season 2 by discussing the importance of sadness, evolutionary perspectives, and differentiate sadness from depression. Dr. Rubin highlights the behavioral role of sadness in the western world while Dr. Pete reminds us that sadness can be a gift from an eastern perspective. All of us have felt it, so tune in to learn about sadness.




Nikki: Pete we are back from our real summer break.


Pete: I missed you.


Nikki: I missed you, too.


Pete: I missed you more.


Nikki: No, I don't think that's true. I think I miss you more.


Pete: We'll argue about it later.


Nikki: Okay, well, maybe we can. [inaudible 0:36] Today we're going to be talking about sadness. There's a dielectric at play here, obviously, Pete and I are very happy to see each other once again and be back, talking to you guys. Though, we are also simultaneously sad that our summer vacation is over.


Pete: You had to start right into a dialectic. Our break meant you had to just get another dialectic out there as quickly as possible.


Nikki: Well, you know me, even on the break I never put dialectics away. There how I experienced and framed the world so I had to go there. So Pete, I obviously want to give some evolutionary psych education about the function of sadness, because patients to me are always like, “I can't understand why do we have anxiety” But what's the point of sadness? I'm just wondering, what are your experience clinically with sadness? Do people sort of go like, “what's this emotion?”


Pete: That's a judgment.


Nikki: Well, yeah, that's what I'm saying.


Pete: Yes, I could help them recognize a judgement of it. And for any listener out there, this is a generalizable, universal emotion. Everybody that walks the planet feel sad.


Nikki: That's right. Well, I guess you dive right into evolutionary stuff, because it's hardwired into us as one of the primary emotions. So I know we've talked about this on our other episodes that deal with emotion, like anxiety and guilt. But the primary emotions, I know there's some argument if there's six or eight, but if we start with the six, we've got joy, anxiety/fear, anger, guilt, disgust and sadness.


Pete: Right.


Nikki: Right. 


Pete: And some throw in there surprised.


Nikki: Surprised and interest. I like the eight, I go with the eight. But anyway, I think if I go back to the anxiety example, obviously people a lot of time ask why we feel fear [inaudible 2:42] what was the point of that? It's like, yeah, you're being chased by saber toothed tiger. Anxiety, fear tells you this is dangerous; get the heck out of there, run away. But people will be like, “What's the point of sadness? Why would evolution select for that, because it just feels awful”. So what I let people know is evolution selected for emotions because they give us information in the moment. Especially before we had language, think of all the other animals, friends here in the world, they don't have language, but emotions tell them something about what to do. So sadness tells us that we've either lost something or have the potential to lose something of meaning to us.  So can you say a little bit about why that would be important from an evolutionary perspective?  Why would we want to be aware of the fact that we could lose something of meaning to us? Why would evolution care about that?


Pete: We want to keep the things close, at least in Buddhism. Oftentimes, a lot of the literature says that sadness is a gift within Buddhism. And that's really tricky for some people to understand. And it kind of reminds me of some of Rene Browns work, where we think we can choose how to feel, or like, I want to choose the positive stuff and then just push away the negative stuff, I want to drink or eat some Oreos but like you said, it gives us data and reminds us about what's important to us. 


Nikki: And connection.


Pete: And connection, yeah.


Nikki: Because if we didn't have the potential to feel sad, we wouldn't care about anything. So like I said, people think from an evolutionary perspective. 40,000 years ago if you were not motivated at all to feel connected to other people, what happened? 


Pete: Exactly.


Nikki: It's like humans are a social species. 40,000 years ago if you weren't part of your group of humans, I'm always like, “you died out there, you froze to death, you got eaten by a saber toothed Tiger, you fell off a cliff” whatever happened, and so we wanted to be motivated to connect. And so the other side of that is you want meaning, you want connection, we can't have that desire without knowing that we're also going to lose that. So because that's a part of our experience too. Sadness also from an action standpoint, an action or just a term we use  in behaviorism tells us to go inward to withdraw to recharge during those times. But if we didn't feel sad, we just wouldn't care about anything. 


Pete: You know, I felt sad at times this summer. I think it was as we took a little break from recording. I noticed that this beginning of a school year, I wonder if any listeners had a similar experience, because I think school is a thing that most of us have. I happen to have it in a really strong way, as somebody who's like, on that academic cycle. But if you're scrolling social media in the last week or so you're likely seeing all the back to school pictures. And there's a sadness of that, and that's not a bad thing. We don't judge it, we just recognize that for us on the East Coast, it's also this realization and acceptance that it's about to be this change of season. And that's why [inaudible 6:25] the Buddhism stuff because the change of the season, holds on to the summer or the sunlight, and doesn't allow for the darkness in the cold. And then after the darkness and the cold comes more sunlight and long days. So that's the cyclical aspect of life. And sadness is just a way that you can make it possible to actually gain more, because the sadness gains this idea of contemplating the impermanence.


Nikki: Absolutely, and I'm so glad to bring that in. Because again, that concept of change, obviously, which is a big part of Buddhism that everything's always changing.


Pete: Nobody here in the West likes.


Nikki: Yeah. Pete and I like quite a bit. 


Pete: I think change keeps us in business at the time.


Nikki: Well, it does. And it's also good [inaudible 17:19] it's inherent and change is loss is losing something. So things are moving, and so as humans, the way we talked about the slot here on When East Meets West, our brains don't like they try to fight that they tried to stick on a linear path and only feel comfortable feelings. And the thing is, it's like no things that we're constantly losing and we're constantly gaining. And other animals they don't struggle with sadness the way that we do. Other animals feel sadness too. 


Pete: I know where you’re going here, the elephant funeral. Go ahead. 


Nikki: Well, I was just going to reference it lightly because I was actually going to talk about dogs, shocker. But [inaudible 8:07] grief episode, we talk a lot about this as well.[inaudible 8:11]  But, I don't know cat so well So cats are different. I don't know how they exhibit sadness But dogs feel sad. my dog, when I'm leaving for the workday, he literally like hunched over his shoulders and looks at me, like, he's bummed out. So he's also okay they are accepting they're very mindful, so they allow the changes to happen. And they can roll with that humans were not so great at that we often view sadness, like we view anxiety as something, quote unquote, “bad as a judgment”, but it's just giving us information. I would honestly ask people to think about, again, I'm going to go back to this concept of, if you didn't have the potential to feel sad, you wouldn't care about anything. 


Pete: It's purposeful. And what's coming to mind for me is the definition of mindfulness. Because we've gone over that several times, but the way that I really think about it from a psychology perspective with the Buddhism is, our suffering is almost always rooted in something we're holding on to from the past or worrying about the future. And that's one of the basic teachings underlying it. I'm going to take a little tangent can I? 


Nikki: Go for it, yeah.


Pete: So one of our teachers within my Zen community was giving a talk and she was referencing some of these more, like 20th 21st century Zen teachers and her reference was that she liked it because they were more philosophical, and not psychological. So I of course felt very defensive around that.


Nikki: Your like, “excuse me”, 


Pete: Excuse you me. I mean I always have said that it's integrated for me without a doubt. I still feel the way that I do in the psychological concept is spiritually based….


Nikki: Same..


Pete: Because we're the same person but I appreciated the context and again it's about lens and perspective because my lens is as a psychologist or as an educator she doesn't have those lenses. So of course you'll see it from a more like secular perspective than someone like you and I who are clinical and how we do this. I say that because when I'm dealing with sadness with a client or myself I just have to be in that moment because what was happening for me was I just; Is this a thing like September scaries?


Nikki: Yeah Oh yeah,


Pete: I mean it's I didn't make that up?


Nikki: No, well, I don't know if people say that to people I know people say Sunday scaries.  But there is the feeling of the back to school feeling kind of gone..


Pete: So that’s what I was feeling a bit, and where is that Nikki? Is that in the past the present or the future? In that moment.


Nikki: Well it's funny, sometimes it's in the present because if you're like I'm going back to school might be happening, that day it might be happening but it can also be the anticipation.


Pete: It was the anticipation for me.


Nikki: And I was going to say that I think a lot of school, unfortunately [inaudible 11:40] fortunately familiar with that feeling though. It is interesting between the East Coast and West Coast I felt it much more intensely on the East Coast because of the changes seasons. We're here, its September 2021 it's still summer here, the weather's amazing. I want to make sure we don’t end this episode without also talking about depression a little bit, we'll do an episode on depression and again, I know we talked about in the grief episode, but it is often confusing for people. What is sadness and what is depression and I think it's important to clarify for listeners. And everybody can feel depressed at some time, right? 


Pete: Of course…


Nikki: Like that's a normal human experience. But if we want to use if we want to use some sort of a Western lens, I would define depression as something more clinical something more biologically related. And again, depression can be triggered by an environmental event so I don't want to ignore that. But sadness is a baseline expected part of our experiences and depression while very common we wouldn't say everybody is going to feel depressed. I mean, yes, and no, not necessarily.


Pete: Right. I'm with that Yeah. 


Nikki: Right. I think that's important to say because I think people can become afraid of sadness because they're afraid to go into depression.


Pete: So would you say like sadness is this symptom in a way like depression is the diagnosis?


Nikki: That's an interesting question. I wouldn't define it that way because I wouldn't say sadness as a symptom because depression itself is also a symptom depression is a diagnosis but we have depressive symptoms. like feeling a depressive mood state, it feels different than a sadness mood state and I would personally distinguish those as depression has a very like leaden heavy lethargic dark sensation, where sadness there's more space around it. That's what I was. I don't know does that resonate with you at all? 


Pete: Yeah, it's I think we're looking at the spectrum and the fluidity of things and so the way I'm seeing it is like this pendulum where sadness is a little less severe than depression is probably more severe.


Nikki: And less sticky 


Pete: And less sticky. Yeah, I'm with you with that. And so one way that I help or at least work through that with people is what we call understanding your why. And so you and I earlier talked about like the spirituality of what we do and for me that's what that is. So I was with the team recently and they were talking about how the coaches were getting on them and it was really feeling like a lot of pressure and it was making them perform worse. And I was like, “what's your WHY?” Like, why does all that matter? A coach is yelling at you so what? it feels really bad in the moment and then what? I tell the story of being in Toronto at the Olympic center where there is this tower. It has a glass elevator and so anyone that knows I have my mom's jeans with that and so I don't love heights and I was like an elevator going up like 50 flights, glass….


Nikki: Not fun.


Pete: How Do you feel about that, you'd be fine?


Nikki: I'd be fine. I don't have a height thing. But I understand. I understand why that would be distressing for anyone.


Pete:[inaudible 15:10] there was just like, sir, with all due respect, we're on this rock that's just like orbiting the sun on this thing that we don't even understand. Like, really What is this tower? And I was like, “amen”. Like, it just I got it in that moment. And I went up. I looked at the door, I didn't look out. But I looked out as I arrived and the door open. So the why, like, what is it? Like there's such a bigger meaning and all this stuff that we're doing even in all the sadness that we experience.


Nikki: So if somebody is experiencing sadness, you, it sounds like try to help people connect with again, it's like, what's the meaning in it? 


Pete: What's the meaning of it? Exactly 


Nikki: Well it's just it's so interesting. It's like, that is the thing I think people have such a hard time getting curious around because….


Pete: Because their afraid of depression like you’ve just said. 


Nikki: And this is actually just sort of crystallizing for me. I think also, why it's important distinguish between sadness or depression is that because depression, there are like actionable steps to get out of it clinically. Like, we go in cognitive behavioral therapies; one of the first lines of defense is behavioral activation, which is a fancy term for just doing something. So it's like having structure and behavior like activating, deferring to do things and that's going to start to regulate mood. So when people feel sad, and I experience it in therapy all the time, when they're just having sadness that isn't depression and let's say maybe we've done some work around depression in the past, their first mode is to go to like, “I got to get out of it”. 


Pete: Yeah, 


Nikki: And I really bring them back to like, this isn't something to fix. This is something to bring compassion and love and kindness and space too. And the word I use a lot is honoring it. 


Pete: Yeah. I love that.


Nikki:  Because honor the why honor the meaning.  Honor that this is information that your brain is telling you that you've lost something meaningful to you or there's the potential to lose something.


Pete: Yeah. And I really appreciate that you brought in this fear that people have that as if sadness directly leads to this deep sticky depression, because there is research that has shown the negative effects of sadness. And in fact, there was the study in 2020, that was published by Doris and his colleagues that found that sadness separated itself from other negative emotions, and did contribute to like smoking, and some other like, unhealthy behaviors. And I think that that's important to recognize is fear, anger and shame did not have the same impact, you know, as a control for it.


Nikki: Well, which makes sense because sadness again, you were just saying about the fluidity in the spectrum. 


Pete: That's right.


Nikki: It can lead to it. So I don't want to suggest that it can, it's not black and white here though. What's interesting is that if we'll it's this paradox Pete and I was talking about like if you allow that, if you honor, that sadness, and you make space for it, connect with it, don't judge it, that's going to help you move through it. 


Pete: Yeah. 


Nikki: Whereas when you're trying to fight it, or like you're trying to get rid of it, or the opposite, is you dive to the bottom of the pool with it. So your illuminate, you use a negative lens and how you're thinking about everything that is both of those things running away from it or clinging to it, or to intensify it and…


Pete: Said like a beautiful mindfulness practitioner. 


Nikki: Or clinical psychologists, right? 


Pete: Yeah, it’s so good to be back. I can't believe that we are almost done already. Time flies when you're having fun. 


Nikki: When you're talking about sadness. Well, time flies when you're talking about being sad. I don't think anyone has ever said those words.


Pete: You just did. September scaries for any listeners out there on the East Coast here certainly, like with the seasonal change. And that's, I think, another metaphor of just embracing the winter. And I've seen all over and over and again, like it's not great, but it's just change.


Nikki: It's just change and so yeah, what I want, let's just take away from this episode is that sadness serves a function, evolutions selected for it for a reason. And even though it's really unpleasant, I want people to see if they can make space for it and honor it because it's helping you identify what's important to you and what's meaningful to you. This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,


Pete: and I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brief. This has been When East Meets West. All material is based on opinion and educational training of Doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.


Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.