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#5: The Strange Benefits of Sadness

#5: The Strange Benefits of Sadness

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Welcome to Motherf*ckin’ Monday, where I share three ideas that make you a slightly less terrible person for the coming week. Get your coffee creamer ready, because today we’re going to talk about sadness… and its odd and unexpected cognitive benefits. I’m also going to talk about Instagram removing it’s “Like” counter—a small yet significant change in how we interact with social media. And finally, a hugely popular author who has made the unexpected turn towards the dark side in their new book, which I obviously love.

1. The Strange and Unexpected Benefits of Sadness – Long-time readers of my work know that I’ve long championed the value of our negative emotions—that just because something feels bad doesn’t mean something is bad. Typically, I’ve argued this from a pretty practical point of view: anger is often a powerful motivator for self-improvement; sadness can add a sense of meaning and purpose to your life; anxiety can mobilize your efforts to do a better job, and so on.

Well, I stumbled upon some research this week about the strange cognitive benefits of sadness. Apparently, sadness can potentially make you a better communicator, more persuasive, and treat others more fairly. It also might improve our memory, attention, even make us more motivated.

So, there you have it folks! New life hack: be sad! Go adopt a puppy with cancer and watch Schindler’s List on repeat for two weeks straight and you’re headed straight for the top!

OK, OK, I’m kidding. For one, the benefits of sadness are marginal, at best. And of course, we don’t want to be sad. But it’s interesting research in that it supports the original point: that bad feelings aren’t necessarily bad, they evolved within us for a purpose, and that purpose is often to make us better people.

The point is to not avoid sadness or other bad feelings. Because, as I’ve written before, it’s not sadness itself that harms us. It’s our judgment of our sadness as something bad that harms us. In fact, there’s research for that too—negative feelings only harm us if we believe our negative feelings harm us. As this study puts it:

“Our study demonstrated that the more individuals valued negative affect, the less pronounced (and sometimes even nonexistent) were the associations between everyday experiences of negative affect and a variety of indicators of … emotional health problems, social integration and physical health.”

Philosophers and writers have been pointing this out for centuries, of course. As Hamlet famously put it, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Then everybody murders each other. Ahh, Shakespeare…

2. Instagram Removes “Likes” From Its Feed – A few days ago, Instagram rolled out a new update that removes the number of likes shown under a post to everybody except the person who posted it. For Americans, this is a new feature, but it’s been tested in a number of other countries for a few months now.

Instagram influencers are whining, but I think this is an unequivocally good thing. And I’ll explain why.

In social psychology, there’s a concept known as “social proof.” Social proof is really simple: we tend to value things other people value. If you walk into a room and everyone is crowded around one person, listening to them speak, we instinctively make the assumption of: wow, that dude must be important! If you look across the room and see someone sitting by themselves, we also instinctively make the assumption that that person is not important. This is not conscious, and we all do it.

The result of social proof is that everything—art, people, movies, ideas—in the public square that gain some popularity, tend to gain more popularity. We want to see movies other people see. We want to know people other people know. We want to date people other people want to date. And when you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed, chances are you gravitate to highly popular content without even realizing it. But because of the size of the networks, social media puts social proof on steroids, accruing the greatest global attention to the most popular things and leaving the rest of the world largely ignored.

By removing these counters, you remove the indicators necessary for social proof to take place. Now, when you scroll through your feed, you are forced to evaluate every image or idea based simply on its merit, nothing else. This not only liberates you, the user, to decide what you like and dislike more clearly, but it also mitigates the “rich get richer” aspect of these platforms.

Long-time readers know that I’m highly skeptical of the blame social media gets for… well, everything. That said, these platforms definitely do hijack and skew our attention on many issues, which damages the culture at large. Removing likes counters from Instagram is a great first step to not only make a better product for users but make a more socially conscious product as well.

(Shameless Plug: Follow me on Instagram!)

3. An Unexpected Addition to the Canon of Negative Self-Help – Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers, came out a couple months ago. In case you’ve lived under a rock, Gladwell is probably the most successful non-fiction author alive right now. He made his name by distilling complicated psychological and social phenomenon into easy-to-understand life tips and perspectives such as Blink and Outliers. He’s always a fun read, and you always learn something reading him.

His new book is in the same vein, but instead of promoting useful tips that the reader can use, he has gone in the complete opposite direction: he has taken some of the most controversial issues in American culture—police violence, campus sexual assault, suicide, torture, etc.—and explained why humans are so bad at confronting these issues. Whereas the central premise of his old books was, “here are the unexpected ways we can be amazing,” the new one is, “here are the unexpected ways we can be horrible.”

The reviews have been scathing. Everyone seems upset about his bleak take on human nature and the complete lack of advice or life-affirming stories in it. Granted, Gladwell has always played loose with the research. But still: it’s a dark book. But Gladwell argues that the darkness is necessary to help us confront our own potential for darkness—our inability to talk to strangers and see who they really are.