Do you remember the last time you woke up feeling happy?
Do you remember the last time you woke up feeling happy?
It’s a question Katie* asked herself one morning – and she didn’t like the answer. ‘I suddenly realised that all day, every day, I feel a sense of low-level sadness,’ she says. ‘And what makes it more confusing is that I don’t have anything to feel sad about. I’ve got wonderful friends, a job I like, money to travel. I do yoga, I eat well. I tick all the boxes. Yet when I wake up, I inwardly sigh. “Oh great,” I think, “Another day.”’
Katie is just one of my female friends who say they feel this way. They’re not depressed: symptoms of depression include not just low mood, but feelings of hopelessness, tearfulness, a lack of motivation, not getting enjoyment out of previously enjoyable things, worrying, changes in appetite, and suicidal thoughts. (If you have these symptoms, it’s important to see your GP.)
No – what I’m talking about is the kind of background sadness that’s not all-consuming – but not comfortable either. ‘It’s not the kind of circumstantial sadness that comes with, say, a break-up or a bereavement,’ says Katie. ‘The negative feelings run in parallel with the positives in my life.’
"I learnt to pretend to be upbeat. But underneath my smile I always defaulted to sadness"Since she was a teenager, another friend, Louise*, has masked her sadness. ‘It’s always been quite easy to hide it from my friends and colleagues,’ she told me. ‘I just don’t talk about it, so on the surface I appear content. I learnt to pretend to be upbeat, especially at work. But underneath my smile I always defaulted to sadness, particularly when I was alone.’
It became harder to hide when she started a new relationship. ‘The more time we spent together, the more he became concerned about how I was feeling. One night, he said, “I’ve noticed you seem really low.” I considered not telling him the truth because I didn’t want to worry him, but I also wanted him to know it wasn’t something he’d done wrong and that sadness was just my default emotion.’
To integrative therapist Hilda Burke, these stories are familiar. ‘I’ve noticed many of my female clients feel this type of ennui – a general feeling of dissatisfaction,’ she says. ‘A lot of these women are successful at work, in good relationships and financially secure, but seem beset by an existential angst that manifests as sadness.’
Burke says she sees it more in her female clients, but whether this is because women tend to verbalise their emotions more, she doesn’t know. ‘Men will often react by keeping busy to distract themselves from their feelings,’ she says. And unlike depression, you can have ‘high functioning sadness’ and simply carry on as normal, despite feeling slightly sad all the time.
‘It’s possible to hold down a job, a social life and maintain a relationship while still feeling this way,’ says Burke. ‘But if left unchecked, low-level sadness can be harmful to your long-term emotional health because it can drain your emotional resources, which makes the sadness worse.’
So what’s causing this sadness epidemic? It’s a question that was recently posted on Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, Goop. An article titled ‘Why are we all so unhappy?’ cited the 88-year-old ‘happiness guru’ Swami A. Parthasarathy, who noted, ‘As the world has been improved, human beings are not as happy or comfortable as they once were. It’s a paradox. Our ancestors were much happier.’
"As the world has improved, humans are not as happy as they once were. It’s a paradox"Social media could be partly to blame – a study by Stanford University in the US found the likes of Facebook and Instagram are giving us a false perception of how happy others are. That can make us feel alone in feeling sad when we’re anything but – and that sense of isolation may compound the problem.
An increasing amount of research shows that younger people are particularly susceptible. In a recent TED talk called ‘Older People Are Happier’, Laura Carstensen, psychology professor and director of The Stanford Center on Longevity, said that she had found that people over the age of 65 are ‘happier than middle-aged people and younger people, certainly. Study after study is coming to the same conclusion.’ She added that they’re more accepting of sadness, and don’t dwell as much on the negatives, citing one study where participants of various ages were shown positive and negative images on a computer screen. Those over 65 remembered more positive images than negative ones.
There is evidence too that low-level sadness could be an ingrained personality trait. ‘Some people’s underlying temperament is naturally more melancholic, whereas others are naturally cheerful,’ says Dr Mo Zoha, a consultant psychiatrist at the Nightingale Hospital in London. ‘There is something called the “set point theory” that suggests that after spikes of happiness, some of us revert back to a predisposing mood, which evidence suggests is related to genetic inheritance and early life experiences.’ So if you were born with a bleak disposition, are there ways to boost your happiness? ‘Meditation and mindfulness exercises can help, as can keeping a gratitude diarywhere you write down events or people you’re thankful for,’ says Dr Zoha. According to multiple studies, the best strategies for dealing with sadness are similar to those recommended for stress and anxiety: eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly and take time out from technology.
It also helps to know your sadness triggers. ‘Our moods are influenced by the circadian rhythms of our bodies,’ says Professor Dinesh Bhugra of King’s College London and president of the World Psychiatric Association. ‘These are the physical changes that take place in our body over a 24-hour period, responding to the sun rising and setting.’ We’re more likely to feel sleepy, lethargic and even in an emotional slump when it gets dark due to the increase in the production of the hormone melatonin. Some people (particularly sufferers of seasonal affective disorder, who feel sadder during winter) respond to these rhythms more acutely than others.
Some of us are also morning people, whereas others are evening people,’ adds Professor Bhugra. ‘It’s helpful to understand your body’s rhythms and identify the best part of the day for you to function well and feel bright.’ If your mood is generally brighter in the evening, try to tweak your schedule accordingly: arrange stressful meetings for afternoons when you feel more capable, or plan a breakfast date with friends if you generally feel down in the morning and need an emotional pick-me-up. In the end, partly due to her partner’s concern, my friend Laura decided to embark on a course of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), where she was taught ways to ‘retrain’ her mood and ‘switch off’ her sadness. ‘I learned to make a list of everything that’s making me feel particularly sad that day, then I break down those thoughts and feelings into bite-size portions,’ she says. ‘Once you’ve done this, you often remember there’s nothing to feel sad about.’ So is she cured? ‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘Low-level sadness is still very much a part of who I am. But I’ve learnt to accept and manage it.’