A therapist will often be faced with a question of what the difference between sadness and depression is and what low mood is then. This will either come up in therapy room as client is making progress beating depression or dealing with any other issue and trying to evaluate progress, or it will come up as a question before a client even comes in for the first session of psychotherapy or counselling.
Feelings are taught through experience
Ability to feel appropriate and adequate feelings is not something we are born with—they are something we are taught to feel as we grow up. We are taught what to feel and think of ourselves and what the situations we should do it in are. We learn to do that through human contact from the day we are born. The same goes for the feelings of sadness and depression.
We cannot account the problem of not knowing the difference between sadness and depression, and additionally also the difference between low mood and depression, only to the apparent similarity of all these feelings.
The feeling we will feel, its intensity and adequacy—all is learned through human interaction
But not only does this sort of emotional literacy mean we learn about what life situations and events it is appropriate to feel sadness in, we also learn about its intensity and adequacy. And this is often one of the areas—and not the only one—that leads to confusing the difference between sadness and depression.
We could say a lot about the phenomenon of feeling sadness when it should not have been felt (and any other response could be more appropriate—e.g. anger) or not feeling it when in fact it would be appropriate. We could also talk about feeling it at higher or lower intensity than it would be appropriate to feel. All these are relevant topics and questions to ask when we talk about feelings, however, this would go beyond the topic of this post.
Difference between sadness and depression is not in the intensity of the feeling
One of common misunderstandings related to the difference between sadness and depression in fact arises from the confusion that the latter is more severe than the former—that the difference in fact stems from the intensity. Meaning that there is actually a quantitative difference between sadness and depression and also between depression and low mood.
This is not true. Sadness and depression differ on qualitative level. Extreme sadness or grief do not cause depression. That does not mean that we do not need to be attentive to excessive grief as a sign of potential depression—and usually it can be the start of it—but that does not happen because of the intensity of sadness or grief, but because a person already meets the predispositions for depression.
Qualitative difference between sadness and depression
Sadness is a feeling that, when felt in adequate situations and to adequate intensity, is healthy and has a purpose. Sadness is experienced at loss something we consider dear to us; something we consider important; something that became part of our world and our life. This can range from objects and people, to values, perceptions—anything we consider part of us and our everyday.
Sadness is a natural response to this loss and has a purpose of reframing our world—our perception of the world. Sadness is a healthy feeling because it reframes our view of the world—from the old one to the one where the object of loss is no longer present. The emotional painfulness of the experience can vary in intensity and length—depending on what part the object of loss played in our life—but in general it is something we endure in order to accept the new life situation as the new reality, new truth.
Sadness is therefore a direct response to the loss of the object and does not include potential feelings of ourselves towards us—there is no self-validation process as the object is lost. And this is also the important part of difference between sadness and depression.
Depression, on the other hand, is a feeling that—contrary to sadness—in fact does carry the element of self-validation with it. Contrary to sadness, depression can be a mix of self-oriented feelings of self-contempt, self-hatred, worthlessness, unworthiness, and low self-esteem. These feelings are also accompanied with feelings of pointlessness and hopelessness—so the feelings of the world around us being bad.
When we consider the difference between sadness and depression, we can generally say that sadness or grief will turn into depression if we consider the loss we experienced as part of us and not only part of the world we live in. If we consider the loss of an object—e.g. social status, job, loved one—as part of us and something that actually defines us, we are at risk of potential depression.
When we consider our self-worth in the light of another or in the light of possession, we will be inviting depression into our lives. When we consider the entire world or life as pointless and meaningless when we lose something dear to us or someone we loved, we diminish our worth and ask depression to enter our lives.