The Reason for Sadness and How Tai Chi Can Help

I am so happy, no, let’s say ecstatic, every time I find a piece of research that backs up this idea:

The mind and the body would never do anything to hurt you.

This is a brave statement.
I know that there are people out there in excruciating pain.
With debilitating diseases.
With DNA they didn’t ask for.
And for me to make a statement like this borders on insulting.
But, nested in this statement is also hope.
Hope that there is either 1) a solution or 2) a reason we are going through whatever it is that we want to stop.

And what I learned about sadness recently is supported by this. There really is truly a reason for sadness and a biological need to experience it.  Let’s start with my WHYs and then dig into the research.

Hindsight is a great teacher. It allows us time to reflect unemotionally.

At two points in my adult life I was so distraught over my life situation and in so much pain I could barely function at work. I am fortunate that I can say that I am on the other side of both of those events. But I can also say that I wouldn’t trade them.

In the first event, I suffered through all three years of it and it wasn’t until after that I saw its purpose. Without getting into it, I had been asking for and trying to make change in my life without a lot of progress. A catastrophe gave me immediate change and the energy to move in the direction I needed to. Being honest with you, it wasn’t positive energy. Most sentences stared with “I am sick of…” Nevertheless, change happened.
While I hated that time. I wouldn’t change it because of where it got me.

Pain is a great teacher. It keeps us present.

In the second event, a painful, energy-sapping injury made life extremely difficult. But I couldn’t shake the sense that the first event had a purpose. Although every doctor said there wasn’t much chance for progress and every man my age resorted to surgery or drugs, I hoped that there was something greater at play. And there was. And I met people with different information. And I met men who healed.

I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but I also wouldn’t trade it. I am WAY better for the experience.

Observation is a great teacher. It lets us know we are not alone.

Reason for Sadness in hospitals

One summer I worked in the county hospital and come in Monday morning after the city’s motorcycle rally. Needless to say, the ICU was packed. I had the distinct privilege of watching a man come out of a coma. He was in bed with a metal halo stabilizing his neck with is worried wife sitting next to him as his leather biker jacket and chaps hanging on the wall. He irrupted into the foulest swearing against his wife that you could ever imagine. It was so bad that a nurse took her outside and asked if she was in an abusive relationship and wanted information about the women’s shelter. Meanwhile, he took off running down the hall, in his halo, with his catheter dragging along the ground hanging down from under his gown!
The nurse called for security and described the violent patient that was fleeing. That’s when the wife said: “Wait! You don’t understand. He’s a preacher! He rides for Jesus!”

How was this possible?
There are 7 “Rancho” levels that a person goes through as they regain consciousness. It begins with a slow return to consciousness and then Level IV is marked by severe agitation and fury. Think about it. If you had to bring a body back from a coma, how would you power the system back up? It appears to me that the body throws all the emotional switches, flooding the body with testosterone and endorphins to really light things up. Think about how much energy you have when you “snap” and are furious.

Again, do we want to be furious? No. But does the body have and use fury for a specific purpose? I think that it does. And that brings us to a potential reason for sadness. Why are we made to experience it?

The Reason for Sadness

Some really intriguing studies by psychology researcher Joseph Forgas (1994, 2013) showed that there are benefits to mild sadness. Namely, people in a negative state:

  • Had better judgement
  • Were more discerning about their situation
  • Were more motivated to make change
  • Remembered details better
  • Were more likely to reach out to others and strengthen their social connections

Even in a portion of the experiment where subjects had to decide how much money to give others. Sad individuals gave more. The conclusion was made that sadness also increases empathy.

Forgas and others who are excited about this data separate it from two other experiences.

Severe Depression

Subjects in the study were determined to have sadness and negativity. There is a level at which an unhappy state becomes all consuming and unproductive. Don’t misinterpret the study to say that all forms of sadness are good or that a depressed person should just see the bright side of things.

Depression turns our concern inward while sadness turns our concern outward.

Fear and Anger

One great difference between Fear or Anger and Sadness is the duration. Fear and Anger were measured to peak at three minutes where sadness was measured up to five days.

A conclusion from the studies is that sadness plays an important role in our lives. Our job is to access sadness by allowing it to occur, observing it, and knowing that it will run its course (5 days tops!). Thinking about the list of “Sadness Benefits” (doesn’t that sound strange?) above.  Why are you being slowed down? What are you meant to acutely remember? What are you supposed to be paying attention to and learning?

Sadness and Tai Chi

And here is where Tai Chi comes in.

Tell me if I am talking about Tai Chi here or telling you how to cheer up:

Continue moving, putting one foot in front of the other, in the daily patterns you are familiar with. Do not pass judgment. You are doing the best that you can. You have brought all of your experiences into this moment and if you can concentrate on what you are doing, this will be the best you have ever done this. Tomorrow, will be even better. Acknowledge what you are thinking or feeling but see yourself as separate from the thought or feeling.

Tai Chi trains us to stay in silent observation of our movements. This is one chief distinction between Tai Chi and almost anything else – Yoga – standing meditation, sitting meditation… Tai Chi asks that you be aware, calm, and observe yourself and surroundings during constant motion. This feels exactly like life to me!  I feel that this is also what the studies’ author concluded.  We need to see the purpose of sadness, not pass judgement, and let it do its work.

At a philosophical level, Tai Chi asks us to bend our brain and acknowledge or find the opposite that is present in every truth.
“I move left to move right.”
“An attack is an offering.”
“I retreat forward.”

Now maybe:

Sadness has benefits.

Forgas, J. P. (1994). Sad and guilty? Affective influences on the explanation of conflict in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(1), 56–68.
Forgas, Joseph P. “Don’t worry, be sad! On the cognitive, motivational, and interpersonal benefits of negative mood.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 22.3 (2013): 225-232.


Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

One thought on “The Reason for Sadness and How Tai Chi Can Help

Comments are closed.

Recent Posts