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Don't always look on the bright side of life

Bruce Cockburn once confessed that he was in love with sadness. I was talking with the award-winning singer-songwriter about his work and life, and at one point, he looked quietly out into the concrete wasteland of Toronto's deep downtown. "I'm very attached to melancholy," he said through his granny glasses. "I'm kind of a melancholy addict."

Melancholia as muse is not uncommon. Many artists will point to its role in their creative lives. Still, the acknowledgment of sadness is rare. We live in a society that promotes the eradication of - or isolation from - negative emotions as the ultimate goal. In the relentless focus on happiness, the value of sadness, in particular, has been disregarded. It has become a modern taboo.

This is not about depression, but rather the normal sort of sadness that can be triggered by events and even sometimes by nothing at all. But when someone asks you how you are, and you're feeling a little blue for no obvious reason, you don't answer, "Well, actually, I feel a little sad today." You smile. You say, "Great, thanks."

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The admission of sadness suggests a weakness - that you're not with the program, slower than the rest of us worker bees, not a productive member of society, too self-indulgent.

But are we overlooking the value of sadness?

"Think of it as pain. Sadness is not pleasant, not wanted and not sought, but it is engineered to give us a signal as to when things we value are not going well. It allows us to withdraw and focus on how our overall goals are going," says Jerome Wakefield, professor of social work and psychology at New York University and co-author of The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder. In the 2007 book, he and Allan Horwitz, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, wrote about the "overpathologizing" of sadness under the influence of pharmaceutical companies. "Depression has been confused with normal sadness," he says. "There has been a blurring of the lines."

Sadness can be healthy. "It's a complex emotion that causes us to rethink our own system and how we relate to the world," Dr. Wakefield says. Major life stressors, such as the loss of a job, divorce or the death of a loved one, result in normal bereavement, which plays a part in healing. "The sadness helps them by promoting a reprocessing of how they're going to carry forward," he says.

There's even some speculation about the evolutionary biology of sadness and its role in survival. A period of withdrawn rumination is "a way of conserving reserves, not rushing into risky endeavours," Dr. Horwitz says. "It can also be useful for people who don't have much power." Primates in the jungle who don't win the dominant struggle and slink off to considered submission survive better, he suggests. They don't pick nasty, life-threatening fights.

Sadness can also be an effective call for help. "It can attract support from other people," Dr. Horwitz adds.

No one wants to diminish the significance of depression. But should we nip all and any sadness in the bud? "The question is this: Do we want to live in a world that tolerates the full range of human emotions or do we want to use the scientific know-how we have at our disposal to reduce that range of emotion?" Dr. Wakefield says.

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Call it romantic claptrap, but I think someone should write a book called The Beauty of Sadness, and in it, one could describe how it invites a broader perspective on life.

It's like postcard-perfect places. A beach with white sand and a gently swaying palm tree against an azure sky would get boring after a while. It's best for a holiday, a designated period of time, and then you can get back to the other, darker, stormier landscapes. It's the variation that makes you appreciate every possibility when it comes into view.

The beauty of sadness can be seen - or rather heard - in Franz Schubert's last three piano sonatas, written in the final years before his death. They speak of contrasting psychological states, fast and slow, from despair to contentment, from reality to dream. And the eventual homecoming or resolution is richer as a result of that unpredictable journey.

"I like to take a realistic view of what we're capable of in any direction, from human suffering and cruelty to incredible courage and loyalty," Mr. Cockburn told me that day I interviewed him in 2002. "It's a big, fluid jigsaw puzzle and being part of that is endlessly interesting in itself."

I have thought of what Mr. Cockburn said many times over the years. It takes courage to be sad, to own up to it, to sit with it and acknowledge it when it settles on your sofa for a visit. But there was something else he said that resonated too. "There is beauty happening all around you all the time," he observed. "You can choose to notice it or not." What I took him to mean is that the world is not all bad or all good, and the trick is recognizing that both dark and light are present at the same time.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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