The Contagion of Sadness


Sadness is not contagious.  In our valiant efforts to be constructive and positive in a world full of difficulty, we can mistake avoiding the distress of others for a way of maintaining our own positivity.

Thanks to our mirror neurons and our natural empathy with other living creatures, encountering sadness most definitely touches us and can even make us feel upset.

But while avoiding the pain of others may momentarily make us feel better, it doesn’t really contribute to our own well-being – or even our own happiness.

Engaging with others in their suffering has an important place in our development as individuals and as societies.

The Charter for Compassion, founder, Karen Armstrong, has some interesting points to make about this subject.

In Buddhism, compassion (karuna) is defined as a determination to liberate others from their grief, something that is impossible if we do not admit to our own unhappiness and misery…It is, of course, important to encourage the positive, but it is also crucial sometimes to allow ourselves to mourn…Today there is often a degree of heartlessness in our determined good cheer, because if we simply tell people to be ‘positive’ when they speak to us of their sorrow, we may leave them feeling misunderstood and isolated in their distress.  Somebody once told me that when she had cancer, the hardest thing of all was her friends’ relentless insistence that she adopt a positive attitude; they refused to let her discuss her fears – probably because they were frightened by her disease and found it an uncomfortable reminder of their own mortality… (1)

Life is hard and trying to maintain a constructive and positive outlook is both necessary and challenging.  The distress of others will seldom prove to be a cause of unbearable suffering within ourselves.  Occasionally, someone else’s story may resonate so strongly with our own that we do feel pain – but that pain is not caused by anyone else’s pain, it is our own pain. It is already there and might just need an occasional remembrance if we are to maintain a mostly positive and constructive outlook.

There are consequences for us collectively, and as individuals, when we intentionally turn away from the pain we encounter.  We might believe we are better off because we have avoided any collateral sadness involved, but we may well have paid a very high price for this momentary comfort.

Because when we do this we lose something so important it isn’t worth the tiny gain – we lose not only an opportunity to bring comfort to another human being but also the strongest thread that can bring us to our own happiness – a connection to our personal suffering.  Without this connection we can’t offer compassion to ourselves and so, we will struggle with our quest for happiness, no matter how often we look the other way.

As Karen Armstrong puts it so beautifully,

…make a conscious effort to look back on the events that have caused you distress in the past…Make a deliberate effort to inhabit those moments fully and send a message of encouragement and sympathy to your former self.  The object of this exercise is not to leave you wallowing in self-pity.  The vivid memory of painful times past is a reservoir on which you can draw when you try to live according to the Golden Rule.*  By remembering your own sorrow vividly, you will make it possible for yourself to feel empathy with others. (2)


*There are many variants of the Golden Rule but they all boil down to the same message – Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

(1) Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, pp 72-3

(2) ibid, p. 73

Two young children, one crying. 1922. Stanley Field Expedition to British Guiana

Participants: Bror E. Dahlgren and John R. Millar


  1. This is very important. Our own suffering is key to assisting us in protecting and loving others. There’s a famous study called “Ghosts in the Nursery” , it was originally conducted by a woman named Selma Fraiberg and was focused on the relationship of young mothers and their babies. The researchers were trying to understand why some of the mothers could or could not respond to their baby’s cries of distress. They realized the ones who had suffered, but had not been made aware of their suffering (they had to deny it to survive abuse) were the same ones who could not perceive the suffering they were causing their babies. They literally could not perceive their babies cries.

    Once these mothers were given a chance to talk about their own pain and suffering, to be made aware of it, the researchers found they spontaneously began to respond appropriately to their own child’s distress.

    1. I am very interested in this ‘Ghosts in the Nursery’ study, thanks a lot – I’ll be looking that up. I think suffering must have some adaptive use because it isn’t possible to eradicate it, even a wonderful world without evil would still have suffering as a result of accident and illness at the very least. I suspect the ‘purpose’ of it is to soften our hearts and make us able to understand things we couldn’t possibly understand otherwise – especially the experience of others. I suspect that our suffering breaks down some barrier that helps us to see others as real, sentient beings but to access this capacity we have to be in touch with our own suffering. Which seems to be more or less what this study is saying if I understand what you’re saying – thanks Patrice. Very interesting.

  2. This piece really spoke to something in me today … from both ends of the spectrum … as a person who sometimes shares painful memories, and as a person who extends an empathetic connection to others who are struggling. Honoring the pain and acknowledging the pain are necessary in order to move through it, and I especially appreciated the very first line, that “sadness is not contagious,” as I often confuse contagion with exposure. Being exposed to pain is necessary, but it does not mean that we must stay there, inside the pain. Sharing our pain, without the burden of requisite positivity, allows for the possibility that healing can occur. Thanks for sharing this inspiring piece.

      1. appreciate your kinds words … it felt clumsy and tilted to write my comment, but I was so strongly moved by your words that I couldn’t bear to pass through without at least attempting a comment … thank again for your kind words

  3. Karen Armstrong may just be one of the most important writers of our time, as she has not only overcome enormous adversity in her own life, but has written about some of the most important issues of our time, namely overcoming the past, reconciliation between the many world spiritual traditions, and compassion for every living being and all life on Earth.

    Recently, while in a certification class in life-saving CPR/AED training by the American Red Cross, a woman whose father had recently died became visibly upset when the subject of recognizing the symptoms of heart attack and stroke came up. When we stopped to take a break between classes, I asked her if she was alright, and she began to cry and recalled in great detail the last moments of her father’s life, and how she now recognized that her father had displayed these symptoms, which she did not recognize at the time.

    I listened attentively and sympathetically, but felt powerless to assist her for most of the fifteen minutes or so that she poured out her story. After several more minutes, she described the kind of person her father had been, and in a moment of empathy, I managed to express to her that I felt she embodied those positive characteristics which her father possessed, and that I was certain she had them as a result of being his daughter.

    At the end of the day, I stopped by her desk, and we shook hands and smiled. She had never told anyone about those feelings, and thanked me for simply listening.

    Karen Armstrong recently gave a TED presentation and acknowledged that she never imagined herself either as a writer or as someone who might be asked to speak at the TED talks, and this posting of yours needs to be shared widely.

    1. I really like Karen Armstrong and find her to be an obvious expert and mine of information but also a woman who is more interested in using her knowledge to create good rather than to bring any glory or honours to herself. She has given two TED talks and both are brilliant.
      I am so glad to hear your story, John, it’s a lovely example of how compassion is actually a simple and human process but one that brings powerful results.
      Thanks for the reblog by the way John. Karen Armstrong definitely deserves reblogging!

  4. I think sometimes we avoid other people’s distress just to protect ourselves. When people are overwhelmed with sorrow or grief, there’s nothing we can physically do to make things better. That lack of control can make us very uncomfortable. Other times their distress reminds us of our own pain, so we try to talk people out of their pain, telling them to be positive but it’s really for our sake. At least that has been my experience.

    1. “that lack of control can make us very uncomfortable”

      it is often easier to disengage and place distance between ourselves and other people’s pain, especially when the pain becomes so palpable that our red flags start waving around wildly, warning us to save ourselves

      how brave when someone can move through the triggers that awaken their own pain, and still find a way to offer words of comfort, or support.

      but then, I think we already had deduced that you are a brave woman, yes?

    2. When I was young I noticed that whenever people were upset others would say to them – ‘Now, now, don’t upset yourself.’ Even as a teenager I realised that what they were really saying was, ‘Now, now don’t upset me,’ – and I actually said as much a few times when I was on the receiving end of this statement (it’s not a successful ploy, btw, don’t try it). Now that I am a (bit) mellower I have more sympathy with people’s reluctance to be upset by coming into contact with the pain of others but what I believe now is that this avoidance can cause even more pain and all for nothing as it doesn’t contribute a whit to our own happiness. And it really does tend to come as a package in my experience, a package that includes a denial of our own suffering. Life is hard (I keep saying that) and I know people cope with this in whatever way they can but even so it is important to stay connected to our own suffering and let that lead us in connecting to others who are in pain.

  5. Part of being emotionally healthy is that we recognize all our emotional promptings and not shove them under the table. Pain is part of life, ditto anger, and joy… Happiness is a choice and I embrace it. However, I won’t toss my other feelings/emotions as they fuel my writing, my thinking, my compassionate side. All are important to our survival. I enjoyed this. 😉

  6. Sometimes people are upset over “nothing” . . . listening to their tales of woe is a waste of time.

    Sometimes people hang on to “hurt” far longer than necessary . . . listening to stale grievances is also a waste of time.

    I believe that true compassion entails reminding people that much of their suffering is SELF CREATED by the refusal to let go of pain from the past or from fertile imaginings about what the future MIGHT bring.

    I prefer to distract them from the negative spiral they create with the thoughts they think . . . rather than having them suck me into suffering of their own creation.

    If that sounds heartless, so be it. Peace. _/!_

    1. All of those points are true, Nancy but it is also true that sometimes the pain is real and needs attention – just like physical pain – the thing is there is no algorithm that can be used with human beings, each person, each situation requires a bespoke response – one size never fits all with people. As for the rest of it – and whatever else you are you most certainly are not heartless, Nancy!

    2. Thanks, Patricia. 😀

      I read this on the heels of a post by a divorced mother, “FIVE things you should NEVER ask a divorced mother.”

      She wanted EVERYONE else to change . . . so she didn’t have to.

      Many of the commentators observed that the problems were NOT in the questions . . . they were in the way she interpreted them. In other words, she was creating her own suffering by the thoughts she was thinking.

      If someone has JUST lost a loved one or has JUST been diagnosed with a life threatening illness, I agree that the first duty of LOVE is to LISTEN.

      BUT (as is often the case), if someone is letting their fears, guilt, doubt, worry, angst, etc., run rampant, creating unnecessary pain and suffering for themselves . . . I’m NOT listening to them for longer than it takes to change the subject. 😉

  7. ” By remembering your own sorrow vividly, you will make it possible for yourself to feel empathy with others. (2)”. This is such a valuable and powerful guideline to opening up channels of healing comfort across the globe. I would refer you to the two latest posts at jessiejeanine’s wordpress blog to see how her repeated past sufferings and abuse, honestly remembered and somewhat shared, is facilitating her to comfort many others. I want to reblog this post on my own website right now. Let me know what you think at

  8. Nice! A good reminder of how to think and interact in an empowering way!

    “The more difficulties one sees in the world the more perfect one becomes. The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes. The more you cut the branches of a tree the higher and stronger it grows. The more you put the gold in the fire, the purer it becomes. The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts…” – Abdu’l-Baha

  9. An excellent post.. More and more do I feel others sorrows and more and more I let my sorrow show within my own tears.. Compassion comes also from a point of gratitude.. Understanding there but for the Grace of God go I…. But its also allowing your own emotions and outlet.. for many years I kept my own in check.. Now they flood out … And its ok to feel……. and express those feelings.. Just as its natural to laugh.. so too is it natural to cry.. And as we cry we wash ourselves clean as we release what may have been years if not life times of pent up emotions..
    Love and Blessings to you.. ~Dreamwalker xx

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