Emotional Education Series Part II: What Sadness Teaches Us

by Jake Wiskerchen

"When you have expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment."
-Ryan Reynolds

Ryan Reynolds is a well-known actor who made large splashes with comedy films. At first blush those who know him from movies like Waiting... and Van Wilder might see that quote and think that it is snarky and unrefined. It might even possibly be negative and depressing, depending upon your own outlook.

However, Reynolds hits the nail on its proverbial head when it comes to the emotion of sadness. As it turns out, sadness has an adaptive function, just like the other emotions in this series, that tells us something about the environment and what is occurring. Sadness, plainly put, lets us know that our expectations were not met. That is very logical and straightforward, but what does it mean in day-to-day life?

Children typically learn to tolerate sadness by learning early on that they can handle disappointing circumstances (e.g., not getting to buy a toy) by discovering that the world does not stop turning just because they do not get what they want, even if they throw a tantrum. This is crucial to later life when the stakes get higher because that "toy" eventually turns into getting cut from the team, romantic rejection, job loss, breakup, death of a pet, death of a loved one, and so on. Life is full of disappointments. Why these things are disappointing is because we have expectations - both conscious and unconscious - that we place upon the world. When those do not get met, then we feel sadness. If we do not know how to ride the wave of sadness, we are doomed to replace it with something else, like anger. I will write more on that later...

For now, if you struggle with being depressed a lot, I invite you to examine your own expectations the best that you can and align them with reality. If you are constantly annoyed with something, ask yourself what you expect and whether it is reasonable. If you find yourself being let down by others, ask yourself what you expect of them and honestly evaluate if it can be fulfilled. If your disappointment is reasonable, go ahead and validate that for yourself by saying, "I am allowed to be upset by this." If it seems a bit unreasonable, then adjust your expectations of that situation/person/group.

Do this exercise every time you face something disappointing and see if your expectations match reality, or in other words, what the real world has to offer. Sometimes I expect the fast food restaurant by my office to have Pepsi (very reasonable) and yet every time it does not (disappointing), I am well justified in my sadness...until I realize that the restaurant has a contract with Coca-Cola. Then I can validate my own disappointment while adjusting for the present reality that I simply will not receive Pepsi from that establishment.

A life lived with expectations aligned toward reality is a more predictable life. Mind closely your complaints however, as great wisdom is often found in disappointment.