In our society, the terms “sadness” and “unhappiness” are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. A person can be very happy but still feel sad; similarly, even a very happy and content person can feel unhappy about certain things. Sadness is an emotion that comes (and sometimes lingers a long time) and goes, whereas unhappiness is generally more of a state of being.
In general, I feel I’m very happy. I have a good life. I’m healthy (though not as healthy as I could/ought to be, but as soon as I’m completely over my bronchitis and my pulled intercostal muscles heal up, I’m going to do something about it). My husband and I both have good jobs that are secure, at least for the foreseeable future, and we have a nice home. I have a very strong faith in God and a wonderful support system in my family. And I’m married to a man who loves me and would do just about anything for me if I needed it or asked it of him.
There have been times in my life when I have been truly unhappy. And I don’t mean being unhappy about certain situations. Even the happiest person on Earth will, at some point, be unhappy about a given situation, and then all that remains is what to do about that particular situation. When I say there are times in my life when I’ve have been truly unhappy, I mean my state of being was one of unhappiness, with moments of feeling happy about certain situations.
Do you see where the difference comes in?
When I reflect on my life, I have to agree that I’m really quite a happy person. I’m content overall with my lot in life. I have many blessings for which I’m thankful. I can say this because I know what true unhappiness feels like when it ceases to be a situational emotion and becomes a state of being.
However, sadness is an emotion, and I’m not sure you can really say it’s something that can become a state of being. I think a person who is inherently and unceasingly sad all the time is more “unhappy” than “sad”. Sadness is part of a coping process we go through when we have to deal with some sort of loss. It’s part of grief. If someone seems perpetually sad for an extended period of time after a loss, it’s not necessarily a state of being; it’s just that the emotion, for them, is lasting a long time. And since I too have had experience with extended bouts of sadness and grief, I can say with some authority that sadness can, and does, come and go.
After the initial sadness begins to fade – perhaps weeks or even months after the loss – people often seem to think they’re getting past their grief, beginning to move on. But then it’s not uncommon for sadness to return months, even years, later. It can be a sharp return, when something strikes us and reminds us of the loss that caused the grief in the first place. It can sneak up on us, like an emotional ninja, and settle on us so smoothly and quietly we don’t even realize the moment it has returned.
The return of sadness can be fleeting or it can last a long time. It just depends on the person and the situation. And it can be disconcerting and surprising when sadness comes to call again, especially if you had thought you’d put it behind you.
I’m sad right now. Really, really sad. I know I’m sad and not unhappy because, as I noted earlier, I can list all the things in my life that are awesome and make me very happy. An unhappy person cannot do this. When I’ve been truly unhappy in the past, I cannot find any silver lining in my rain clouds; everything sucks. This isn’t the case at present.
I know why I’m sad too. At least, I know why sadness has returned. And it is upsetting in itself because I’d thought I’d been feeling better. I don’t know why it’s so surprisingly sharp right now, why I feel like bursting into tears the way I did when my grief was so new. So I’m frustrated, because this sadness seems to be leaking into the happy parts of my life. And that scares me a little.
You see, when sadness begins to leak into your happiness, it has the potential to turn happiness into unhappiness. And that’s a very bad place to be.
I’ve talked to my husband about how I’m feeling. He does the right thing – holds me, wipes my tears when I start crying for seemingly no reason (though we both know the reasons). He doesn’t tell me to “cheer up” and “be happy” – at least, not in seriousness. He says those things jokingly but I know he’s not trying to make light of my feelings or force me to get over my sadness. He has his sadness too. But he’s a guy and deals with it differently.
I’ve been feeling so sad I actually stopped and talked to a friend at work (who happens to be the school psychologist in my building) who knows about my losses and my sadness and told me back in August that she would always be there to give me a hug and listen if I needed to talk.
She’s incredibly wise. She really is. She told me that in our country, grief is supposed to be fleeting; we’re supposed to get over our grief quickly and move on, even if it’s “okay” to feel sad during certain times through the year when something makes us “remember” the one we’ve lost. But the long term nature of true grief isn’t not supported by society at large, and the type of loss I’ve dealt with in particular is poorly recognized by society. You find support from those who love you and share the loss, and by those who’ve had similar losses. But that’s about it. Certain types of losses aren’t even supposed to be talked about; society’s answer to your ongoing tears and sadness often seems to be little more than, “Are you serious? Get over it already!”
So there you have it. Here I am, not unhappy. Just sad, sighing because the world we live in is sick of me crying over things I “should” be over by now.