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Cures for Sadness, Part I: Ideas and People

Handling negative emotions

Stuck in sadness
In his classic book Emotional Intelligence, Dr. Daniel Goleman describes one of the most common responses to sadness: rumination. Something happens; we get sad; and then that sadness encourages us to sit and think the situation over, reliving it or elaborating on it or beating ourselves up. These kinds of rumination tend to keep the sadness going.

Being sad can actually be a helpful in some circumstances, as described in “The Benefits of Feeling Bad.” For instance, if I’m sad because I’ve done something unkind to a friend so that the friend is now upset with me, ruminating may help me understand where I went wrong and how I can handle things differently next time. It can also help me formulate an apology and convince my friend that I’m truly sorry.

In many situations, though, being stuck in sadness is simply painful. When this is the case, according to the research Goleman cites and much other research that has come out since he wrote the book, we have several options for finding our way out of sadness.

Thinking our way out
One of the most powerful means of getting out of any kind of negative emotion, a mainstay of cognitive therapies, is using idea repair (officially known as “cognitive restructuring”): see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.” With this approach we eavesdrop on our own thoughts, find out what it is we’re doing to make ourselves sadder, and change our thinking to relieve that pressure.

Socialization vs. sadness
Another method–one you’ve probably used on yourself or on a friend–is social time. According to research, says Goleman, sad or depressed people who spend time with people they enjoy very often experience a big boost in mood. The barrier here is that a sad or depressed person often avoids the company of others, and activities don’t sound as appealing when a person’s mood is low. This makes friends who are willing to drag you out to have fun when you’re down very valuable.

Without going into great detail, a few of the reasons social time improves mood are:

  • Moods tend to be contagious, so a single sad person in a group of happy people has a good chance of being influenced by the mood of the others.
  • A person who is out in a group is likely to make a greater effort not to act depressed, and acting out a mood is a good way of encouraging that mood. For instance, the act of smiling tends to make people happier even if the smile is completely fake.
  • In a group, broken ideas are more likely to be challenged and functional ideas more likely to be offered as replacements.

In further articles in this series, I’ll talk about other techniques for trumping sadness.

Photo by Beni Ishaque Luthor

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Useful Book: Emotional Intelligence


Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence may be 15 years old, but the ideas and information in it, far from being out of date, are being confirmed and expanded in psychological research to an extent that might be surprising even Goleman.

When the book first came out, the idea that emotional skills–like patience, self-control, focus, cooperation, and empathy, for instance–might be as important as intellectual skills was one that needed to be argued for. Goleman’s argument seems to have succeeded: these days as a general rule people seem to take it for granted that emotional skills are important for success, but exactly what those skills are, how they’re useful, and how they’re gained is still not common knowledge.

If you’ve read posts on this site regularly, you might find this book unnecessary: most of the information in it has been adopted and built upon by the relatively new field of Positive Psychology, and therefore has been demonstrated or even taken as a starting point in much of the research I’ve delved into over the past few years. However, as an introduction to the subject of emotional intelligence or even self-improvement in general, Goleman’s book covers more of the bases than pretty much any other book I could readily name.

Goleman also pays special attention to how emotional intelligence works in children and to strategies and school programs that can make a dramatic difference in a child’s life. As such, I’d doubly recommend the book to teachers and to parents wanting an introduction to some of the approaches used to help kids learn emotional skills.

A note about editions: I read the original version of this book rather than the revised, 2006 version I link to here, which appears to have some improvements and added, more recent material. Confusingly, there’s an apparently unrelated book called Emotional Intelligence 2.0, which appears to be getting good reviews from readers and selling very well. While I understand the marketing appeal of usurping the name of Goleman’s popular book (which I assume isn’t trademarked), I’m disappointed in the approach. However, it’s always possible that the authors really are working with Goleman or have his blessing and it just isn’t apparent from the book listing. In any case, to be clear, I’m referring to Goleman’s book in this post, and recommend it highly unless you’ve already learned all the basics of the subject.

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