Sadness: The Portal to Happiness

Sadness is the most profound, pivotal, and powerful of emotions. No other emotion has the power to transform us, to evolve us, to change us from the inside out.

It’s also the most discounted, maligned, shamed, countered, misunderstood, resisted, and feared emotion, according to Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a Vancouver-based psychologist.

Sadness is also the most difficult and problematic emotion to actually feel. It is difficult because it takes strength and courage to feel sadness because it is unpleasant. In addition, there’s stigma in our society about feeling sadness. Our culture tends to focus on positive thinking, and sadness or crying can be seen as a sign of weakness.

Paradoxically, there’s nothing quite like sadness to restore our hope and perspective, quipped Dr. Neufeld in a lecture titled, “The [Almost Total] Eclipse of Sadness.”

Our culture is preoccupied with positivity

Our culture would have us believe that we are masters of our fate, that if we work hard enough we can do anything, that nothing is beyond our reach.

But there are many things in our lives that don’t work, that can’t work, that are simply bigger than us, or that we don’t have control over—being passed over for a promotion, being left, breaking your favourite cup, death. Consider taking a moment to think of something in your life that you cannot change or get control over.

We experience unpleasant emotions when things don’t go our way

When you think about things you cannot change or get control over, you may notice yourself feeling frustrated/angry, alarmed/anxious, or moved to intensified pursuit. These are all normal and expected, although unpleasant, responses to things that are not working for us. Dr. Neufeld has developed a theory about why we have these emotions when we are faced with things we cannot change.

Separation/disconnection is the source of unpleasant emotions

The fundamental premise of Dr. Neufeld’s theory is that connection/togetherness is the greatest human need and that separation/disconnection is the greatest human threat.  To appreciate why this is so, consider an emergency like an earthquake or a tornado. What is the first thing most people think of? Getting quickly to the grocery store to buy supplies? Packing an overnight bag? Or locating loved ones to ensure they are safe? Most people will try to find their loved ones, their beloved pets, and personal items that carry meaning. Human instinct tells us that togetherness offers us a better chance at survival.

Resistance to feeling sadness activates the ‘fight’ response

When we are facing separation/disconnection from somebody or something that is not working for us, we can be tempted to try to change the situation, to resist it, to take control. When we are trying hard to change, resist, or control, we are experiencing sympathetic arousal in our autonomic nervous system – the fight response. Note that the fight response is an automatic reaction to threat, to separation/disconnection. We don’t decide to fight; our bodies tell us that this is the best course of action to deal with the threat.

We may try to convince, to cajole, to argue, to yell, to shame, all in an attempt to resolve or dissipate the unpleasant fight sensations in our bodies and reestablish connection/togetherness. Notice how you experience the fight response. Where does the fight part tend to live in your body? Where do you feel it? What sensation does it give you?

If, despite our efforts, we realize we can’t reestablish connection/togetherness or change or control whatever we are up against, we experience a ‘confrontation with futility’ – an emotional recognition of the futility of our efforts. Most of the ‘futilities’ we experience are related to separation or disconnection from the people or things we love, including plans or expectations that are not going the way we want them to.

Lingering in the doorway of sadness transforms us

At that moment of the ‘confrontation with futility,’ a complex bodily reaction occurs where the amygdala, the emotional centre deep in the brain, registers the futility of our thoughts/actions, and signals the tear glands in the eyes. The eyes water and we may cry, or feel tears behind our eyes, or feel very sad. This is the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system – the relaxation response.

Once the relaxation response occurs, our minds open up again, and other options, ways of looking at the situation, ideas, or strategies occur to us. We feel a deep rest in our bodies, and a sense of resignation and acceptance. We feel relief from the pressure of stuck emotions.

You may remember occasions where this happened to you and you may recall the relief you felt from ‘a good cry.’ This is the autonomic nervous system re-regulating itself.

Sadness builds resilience

Sadness is often confused with depression and despair. But depression and despair are characterized by stuck-ness and lack of feeling. Sadness – coming face to face emotionally with the futility of trying to change something we cannot change– is actually the answer to depression and despair.

Feeling sadness—really feeling it—is the spontaneous adaptive process.

Being able to really feel our sadness requires the strength to endure the feeling. Paradoxically, by enduring the feeling of sadness, we build our strength to endure future losses and disappointments. This is because our brains register that we can survive loss. Over time, this experience builds our ability to adapt to future losses and things we cannot change. This is resilience.

Sadness leads to happiness and fulfilment

Sadness offers the potential to recover from loss and lack, restrictions and failures, including not getting one’s way.

In Norse mythology, Freya, the goddess of tears, spent years searching for her lost husband and shed tears of gold and amber over the land. That her tears were of gold and semi-precious amber tells us there is something valuable about her tears. Feeling sadness preserves our capacity to be happy, adaptive, and resilient.  “Happiness lies on the other side of tears that have not been shed,” according to Neufeld.

A portal is a doorway or a gate. By lingering in the doorway of sadness, we preserve our capacity to be happy.


Our registered clinical counsellor Lucinda Flavelle specializes in parent consulting and coaching, individual psychotherapy, and couples counselling. As a result of therapy, you will find yourself relieved of the burdens you were carrying, confident in your new way of being, and with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose about your life. Read more about how she can help here.

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