July 4, 2019

When your Brain is Addicted to Sadness.


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The waiter sat, teetering on the edge of his seat with a single butt cheek, in the booth across from us, visibly impatient and waiting to go home.

“Well,” I asked, “Shall we get going?”

I was being polite. After 10 days of electronic communication with a person I met on a dating site, I was rather relieved that the date was over. I should be accustomed to the fact that blurry photos usually indicate they were taken years before—I’ve experienced this more than once—but there I was, fooled again. I wondered to myself if I was hopelessly optimistic or just an idiot, as the lights in the parking lot began to darken in succession, and I found myself walking the last 20 steps to my car in complete blackness.

To be perfectly honest, this date was just one small sliver from a very active day. This day also included a phone conversation with the singer of a popular mathcore band regarding my appearance in their new video; my beautiful and healthy four-year-old daughter graduating from her preschool; a new article published on Elephant Journal; and an expensive feast at a wonderful Japanese restaurant.

So, why, for God’s sake, was all my attention being focused on a poorly matched date that took all of 45 minutes from start to finish? Was I really that disappointed that I wasn’t going to live happily ever after with someone whose hobbies included karaoke and bowling?

It turns out, there is science behind this vexing conundrum.

The brain’s obnoxious habit of focusing on the one negative situation in lieu of the 16 or 17 happier occurrences from the day is a survival mechanism that was instilled in us from the beginning of human history. What chance would a prehistoric person have if they focused most of their attention on the picturesque sunset instead of the tiger rustling through the brush, headed right for them?

In addition to evolutionary behaviors, there are any number of other roadblocks for those who seem to have an addiction to sadness, including:

1. The need to feel one is being realistic, in lieu of being positive and seemingly unaware of “reality.”

2. A deep-seated guilt, rooted primarily in past childhood traumas.

3. Fear of the unknown (especially for those with mild or severe depression).

4. An unhealthy obsession with tragic world issues and circumstances.

5. Fear of contentment rooted in ambition.

Personally, I’m sure I contend with a combination of some of these things, but I try not to spend too much time pondering my root causes. Instead, I drag myself into the spiritual work with as much enthusiasm as a middle-aged person heading for the elliptical machine after eating a box of doughnuts. That is to say, with very little bounce in my step initially.

The only thing I usually have going for me is, as Dr. Wayne Dyer has been known to say, “I want to feel good.” And like Dr. Dyer, I put the mood and mind-altering substances down almost a decade ago, so spiritual work is the safest bet.

Even though there are easier options to feeling good, such as sex, food, or Netflix, it goes without saying that those things are fleeting and may actually aggravate the feelings of emptiness that led one to those outlets in the first place.

As I drove home from the dinner that night, I allowed myself the luxury of wallowing in the gloom for the first three or four miles and then I sprang into action. Well, perhaps not sprang—maybe sluggishly began doing what I knew I had to do—push against gravity.

Here are five ideas you can try if you, like me, suspect your brain may be addicted to sadness:

1. If you find yourself in a scenario like the one I just described, try “The Mindful Life” podcast or an audiobook that will give you a happy kick in the butt. You may find that just passively listening to other humans who are in a better state will invariably winch you out of the puddle of mud you are sitting in. At the very least, it’s enough to get the ball rolling.

2. I’ve always been a staunch advocate of starting the day with a run, a rebounder, or a bike ride. Psychologists, recovery coaches, and certified social workers have been extolling the virtues of “moving a muscle to change your thoughts” from time immemorial because, well, it works. It always has. It always will.

3. How about 10 minutes of meditation in the morning? If you’re rolling your eyes or skipping to the next idea, hold up a second. I understand. A lot of people can’t stand the thought of trying to meditate, however, try to keep in mind that it is one of those things you wish you would’ve been open to once you feel the benefits. Humor yourself. Just do it!

4. Journals are a great way to start your morning. I find that if I start to explicate how I am feeling and the circumstances that brought me to that place, eventually I will come to terms with the fact that I am usually giving far too much energy to something that is not terribly significant. Extra credit if you can jot down a paragraph about something you’re grateful for.

5. Get the screen out of your face and force yourself to do something relating to actual human connection. Get a cup of coffee with a friend, call someone on the phone, go find an open mic somewhere. We, as a society, are doing less and less of this stuff and it shows.

The bottom line is that addiction to sadness affects more than just a few of us, but we don’t have to take it lying down. We are great ones for talking about the practice of self-care and, to be honest, self-care is a lot more than just candles and bubble baths.

It is doing the thing we don’t feel like doing sometimes.


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