Sadness is a basic emotion that everyone experiences at times. It can range from brief and mild (i.e. being disappointed for a few minutes) to chronic and extreme (i.e. being depressed for months or years).
It is well-known that the frequency, duration, and intensity of sadness that you experience has a profound impact on your overall quality of life. However, few people are aware of the connection between sadness and self-control.
In this article, you’ll learn why sadness can lead to impulsive behavior. You’ll also learn some practical strategies for reducing and managing sadness, so that you can be more deliberate and disciplined in forming stronger habits.
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The Marshmallow Test
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dr. Walter Mischel and Dr. Ebbe Ebbesen led a series of studies on delayed gratification. These experiments came to be known as “The Marshmallow Test.”
Over 600 children took part in these studies. Each child would be led into a room- one child at a time. The room would be free of distractions. A treat of the child’s choice (usually a marshmallow or a cookie) would be placed on a table in front of the child. Then, the child would be presented with two options.
The child’s first option would be to enjoy the treat immediately. The second option would be to wait for 15 minutes without eating the treat. If the child was able to wait, he would receive a second treat to enjoy as well. The researchers would then exit the room, leaving the child on their own with the treat.
In some cases, additional instructions would be provided to the children before they were left alone with their treat. Some children would be instructed to think about something that made them sad, such as crying with no one to help them. (This sounds pretty cruel, doesn’t it?) Other children would be instructed to think about something that made them happy, such as playing a game with one of their parents.
The researchers found that inciting different emotions had a significant impact on how the children behaved. Children who were instructed to think sad thoughts gave in to temptation three times faster than those who were instructed to think happy thoughts.
Why Sadness Leads to Impulsive Behavior
Experiments with adults have also demonstrated the connection between sadness and impulsive behavior. Dr. Jennifer Lerner, co-founder of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory, explains this phenomenon with a theory known as “myopic misery.”
“Humans have a want-it-now tendency, but sadness makes our impulsiveness even worse,” says Dr. Lerner. Feelings of sadness are usually associated with a sense of loss, and this triggers an impatient desire to replace the perceived void. Feeling sad also makes you more likely to focus on your current self than your future self. The combination of these factors can cause you to place an irrationally high value on immediate rewards.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
There are many unhealthy ways that people try to cope with sadness. When feeling sad, some people try to “reward” themselves with “comfort” foods. Other people might turn to gambling or shopping to try to feel better. Others may abuse drugs or alcohol when they feel sad. These are just a few examples of how people try to cope.
Unfortunately, none of these coping mechanisms address or resolve the root cause of one’s sadness. In fact, band-aid strategies usually just lead to more frequent, more intense sadness over the long-term, along with more impulsive behavior.
The Stronger Way to Reduce and Prevent Sadness
The better you are at managing sadness, the more likely you will act in your best interests over the long-term. The following four steps provide a practical approach to reduce and prevent sadness in a healthy way.
Step 1: Identify your most common triggers.
The first step to reducing and preventing sadness is to identify what causes you to feel sad in the first place. Ask yourself the following questions:
- When are you most likely to feel sad?
- Who are you usually with (or are you alone?) when you feel sad?
- Where are you most likely to be when you feel sad?
- What typically happens right before you feel sad?
- What are you usually doing when you feel sad?
You will find some common themes. Chances are that you are most likely to feel sad at certain times, when you are around certain people (or when you are too solitary), when you are at certain places, or when you are doing certain activities.
As for me, the following are five of my most common triggers for feeling sad:
- Spending too much time alone in my house.
- Not getting enough quality sleep.
- Being sedentary for too long.
- Being around people with negative attitudes.
- Comparing myself to people who seem to be “better off” in some way.
Step 2: Reduce your exposure to your triggers.
After you have identified the triggers that are most likely to make you feel sad, ask yourself how you can reduce your exposure to those triggers. For example, as noted above, I am much more likely to feel sad when I’m tired. So, I am very strategic about managing my energy.
As another example, I have a tendency to feel sad when I’m around people who are negative. So, I am very deliberate about keeping my interactions with such people as brief and infrequent as possible.
Reducing your exposure to certain activities, people, etc. can go a long way in helping you avoid feelings of sadness in the first place.
Step 3: Prepare healthier responses to sadness.
No matter how proactive you are in reducing exposure to sadness triggers, you will experience sadness at times. It’s a human emotion that cannot be eliminated entirely. Therefore, it’s wise to have a few ways to pick yourself up naturally when you are feeling down.
The key here is to decide in advance (not in the heat of the moment) how you will respond when you feel sad. Instead of turning to artificial, unhealthy coping mechanisms (i.e. junk food, gambling, alcohol, etc.), think of some stronger ways to respond. Many times, a simple, natural activity can shift your mood quickly. Here are five examples:
- Exercise or go for a walk.
- Call or visit one of your favorite people.
- Read an excerpt from an inspiring book.
- Listen to some of your favorite music.
- Watch an inspirational video.
Step 4: Focus on making other people happy.
As written here, the #1 way to be happier (and to therefore experience less sadness) is to focus on making other people happy. You can use this as a strategy when you feel down. Or, you can build this strategy into your lifestyle proactively.
Thinking too much about your own happiness can paradoxically make you more likely to feel sad. Ask yourself how you can bring more happiness to other people.
Sadness is an emotion that everyone experiences at times. While everyone knows that too much sadness reduces your quality of life, few people recognize the link between sadness and self-control.
The better you are at reducing and preventing sadness, the easier you will find it to be deliberate and disciplined in forming stronger habits. Rather than resorting to unhealthy, artificial coping mechanisms when you feel sad, follow these four steps instead:
- Identify your most common triggers.
- Reduce your exposure to your triggers.
- Prepare healthier responses to sadness.
- Focus on making other people happy.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the bestselling author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Before writing Work Stronger, Pete worked as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area. He has also competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.
References for this article:
- Mischel, Walter. The Marshmallow Test: Understanding self-control and how to master it. London: Bantam Press, 2014.