In Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, he presents a metaphor for the mind wherein which he uses the image of a rider on the back of an elephant. In this context, Haidt suggests that the conscious mind is like the rider, and the unconscious mind like the elephant.

Modern psychology now firmly believes that as much as he tries, the rider is unable to control the elephant. Which means as human beings, we are largely unable to override our unconscious processes.

Haidt also suggests that “the rider evolved to serve the elephant.” This means that a lot of the explanations we have for our behaviour are largely in order to justify the cognitive processes of the unconscious mind and not the other way around.

So the question we may have is, what happens when the elephant is doing something that the rider doesn’t understand? What happens when it feels like we’re sad for no reason?

To begin, we need to look a bit closer at the question.

Why do I feel sad for no reason?

This is an important question because there is never ‘no reason’ for your sadness. When people believe they are sad for no reason, it means that either:

  1. They have yet to identify the reason they feel sad. It may be unconscious, such as a repressed childhood trauma, or the direct cause may be tricky to determine, such as an imbalance in the microbiome (the bacteria in our gut).
  2. They have identified the cause but aren’t content with the answer. This might be because what they have found to be the potential cause of their sadness i.e. an old relationship, is not what they have expected, or are yet willing to accept, to be the answer.

In order to identify the cause of your sadness, to begin to accept it, and to start to combat it, it’s necessary to take a look at exactly what sadness is, why we become sad, and to identify some of the situations in our life that might lead to these low moods.

What is sadness?

Sadness is one of the most fundamental human emotions and it is found to be expressed universally across all cultures.

It’s one of the six basic emotions, as described by Paul Ekman, and is typically characterised by feelings of helplessness, grief, and loss. There are a number of different ways in which people handle their sadness, some healthy, others unhealthy or maladaptive.

Having occasional sadness is a normal and unavoidable part of a human life. When sadness arises, it is the result of a combination of neurochemical processes, cognitive habits, and environmental triggers.

Why do we get sad?

This is an incredibly complex question to tackle. It’s fair to say that we can never pinpoint one direct cause for our sadness because even in what seems like an obvious and clear circumstance, such as the loss of a loved one, other periphery factors such as tiredness and resilience to stress, will mediate that sadness.

For this reason, it’s important that in order to truly understand why you feel sad, you must look at the different potential reasons from a holistic perspective, and determine which parts of your life you want to try and change, and which you may want to try and accept.

Brain Chemistry

The human brain is an incredibly complex piece of machinery, and our neurochemistry plays a fundamental part in our emotional states. There are dozens of reasons why your brain may be experiencing sadness, though it’s never completely clear-cut. For example, people who experience frequent bouts of sadness have been found to have lower levels of the neurochemicals serotonin and norepinephrine, though this doesn’t mean these chemicals are direct causes of these moods.

Here are some of the common ways in which fluctuations in our brains may cause negative emotional states.

Imbalances in nutrition. Nutrition is a critical part of brain health and once again there are many factors that can cause an imbalance. Ensuring that your blood sugar levels don’t spike and that you have minimal inflammation is an important area to consider. Start by regulating your gluten intake and minimising your consumption of processed foods and refined sugars, as well as eliminating any foods you may have an intolerance to. It’s also vital that you stay well hydrated!

Lack of sleep. Our bodies and brains are very reliant on sleep to function. When we don’t get adequate rest it reeks havoc on our system. This is why those who suffer from insomnia very often develop mood related disorders such as depression. If however, you are sleeping a lot more than usual, this may be a sign that you’re experiencing a depressive episode.

Lack of exercise. A sedentary lifestyle is another reason that we may have feelings of sadness. Neurochemicals that are associated with positive emotional states, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, are produced and maintained in the brain with regular exercise. Exercising is also great because it helps with getting more replenishing sleep.

Hormone fluctuations. Normal change in our hormones that may happen as a result of the natural aging process, or other occurrences such as pregnancy or menstruation, can cause sadness.

Chronic pain and illness. There are a number of chronic pains and illnesses that may contribute to sadness, Alzheimer’s and cancer, for example, are often linked to depression, and chronic back pain is often associated with negative emotional states.

Genetic Susceptibility. Keep in mind also that your genetic makeup is often a cause of your emotional states. Some people are simply more susceptible to sadness than others.

 

Environmental Triggers

Environmental triggers are intrinsically tied to both brain chemistry and cognitive habits. There are also a potential infinite number of environmental triggers that could cause you to feel sad. If you want to try to figure out what in your environment could be making you sad, keeping a journal that monitors your mood is a good place to start.

Some common environmental triggers in the modern world include;

Stress at work. It’s unfortunate that many people live very stressful work lives. When you work long hours it can be difficult not become fatigued as a result of your job, and it’s even likely that you may still be thinking about work when you get home. This is problematic because this stress may spill into other areas of your life, impacting your relationships and degrading the quality of your leisure time. It also causes fatigue and lower energy at work in the days that follow, perpetuating the cycle.

Stress in relationships. Psychology now recognises relationships as one of the most fundamental aspects of our wellbeing. Healthy relationships help to facilitate a healthy mind and a healthy brain. As humans, we are hardwired to be social creatures, so if your relationships are suffering, be they romantic, platonic or professional, it’s likely that this can cause sadness.

Separation anxiety. Sadness is often a response to loss, and one of the earliest forms of sadness we see is in the separation anxiety when infants are taken from their mothers. We see the same response later in life when people travel long distances from their families and friends. This, however, can be healthy, as some degree of autonomy is necessary for personal growth.

Sadness around you. When other people around you are experiencing sadness, it’s likely that your internal experience will reflect theirs. This happens in the brain as a result of our mirror neurons, and is more likely to occur with people we are close to and if we are someone who tends to experience more empathy in general.

Watching the News. Modern media is littered with stories that are designed to play on our emotions. They’re meant to elicit feelings of fear, anger, and sadness because that’s how news corporations drive engagement and generate revenue. However, this gives us as a narrow view of what’s actually going on in the world and can leave us feeling depressed and sad.

Cognitive Triggers

When we have a chemical imbalance or an environmental trigger, what generally happens is a trickle-down effect which results in maladaptive thinking patterns. These may be things such as negative thoughts, anxiety or unreasonable expectations that result in feelings of sadness.

Here are some common cognitive triggers that may cause sadness.

Negative self-talk. When we routinely engage in negative self-talk, it’s likely to lower our self-esteem, our motivation and our resilience to stress. All of which are factors that contribute to feeling sad or depressed.

Unrealistic expectations. Our brain is constantly making a map of the world for survival, and when the map it creates consistently fails to meet reality, it causes stress and confusion. Having unrealistic expectations can be a dangerous cognitive trigger for sadness, and studies have suggested that it can actually lead to depression.

Unhealthy obsessions. When we focus on something for a long period of time, it can result in great productivity and creativity. However, when we ruminate over certain thoughts, it can also lead to worry, fatigue, and in the long term, depression.

Spiritual loss. When those of us who are spiritual face hard times, it’s normal that we may go through periods where our relationship to our spirituality may weaken and dwindle. During those times it can feel like we’ve lost something and we may experience grief. The same can be said for those who aren’t spiritually inclined if they have another type of loss of meaning, such as when they begin to feel less satisfaction out of their work or family lives.

Nostalgia. People who often reflect on the past can find themselves feeling sad. This is because when we reflect on bad times we relive them to a certain degree, experiencing the suffering again. On the flip side when we look back at good times, though we may enjoy thinking about them, there is often a sense of loss associated with the memory.

 

Am I depressed or just sad?

Sadness and depression often go hand in hand, you can feel sad without feeling depressed, and you can be depressed without feeling sad.

Feeling sad is a temporary state that may or may not be caused by an external event. We sometimes describe it as ‘feeling down’ or ‘feeling blue.’ Feeling depressed however, is a persistent feeling that lasts longer than two weeks and is accompanied by a number of other symptomns such as irritability, difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt or worthlessness and general fatigue or loss of motivation.

Depression, as opposed to sadness, is a much longer-term illness and is typically defined by a disruption to important areas of your life, such as work or social relationships.

One key issue with depression is that the more time we feel sad, the more that sensory input – such as smells or sounds – is being encoded as associated with sadness, and thus the more things are likely to make us sad in the future. This is why emotional states, such as sadness, tend to reinforce themselves and act like a wave that picks up momentum as it goes.

If you’ve been consistently sad for longer than two weeks, or you’re having persistent thoughts of death, it’s advised that you see a therapist.

What is your experience with sadness? Do you sometimes wonder why you feel sad for no reason? Let me know in the comments!

Ben Fishel

Ben is a freelance writer and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age.

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