Helen Russell, HOW TO BE SAD

Helen Russell, HOW TO BE SAD

Journalist and author Helen Russell joins Zibby to discuss her latest book, How to Be Sad, and her research on how leaning into our sadness can actually lead to true happiness. Helen and Zibby talk about why we are often our most creative and grateful while upset, where there are still gaps in brain activity research, and ways to cultivate a healthy emotional environment with your kids.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Helen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss How to Be Sad.

Helen Russell: Thank you so much for having me. It’s lovely to be here.

Zibby: I was dropping my daughter at school this morning and telling her what I had coming up. She was crying about going to school. I was like, “My first book is How to be Sad. Maybe this is a good book for you.” She’s like, “I don’t want to be sad.”

Helen: I have two sick kids right now. It’s this whole trying to say it’s okay to be feeling like this. This will pass. This is part of life. It’s an ongoing process.

Zibby: I’m sorry about your kids. Two at once, that’s no fun.

Helen: Yeah, it’s busy.

Zibby: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your book. For people who aren’t familiar with you and all of your amazing research and work and your best-selling book and all this amazing stuff, can you talk about How to Be Sad and why you turned the happiness research on its side to reposition how to have a more joyous life, essentially, and why it’s important to be sad?

Helen: I’d spent the last eight years researching into happiness worldwide. Back when we could, I’d go around the world talking about my work and meeting people and interviewing people. I kept coming across this same question time and again of people who’d perhaps lost a loved one or been made homeless or been made redundant who would still ask, but how can I be happy? Why aren’t I happy? It came to me, really, that actually, we are so obsessed with the pursuit of happiness that we’re quite phobic of feeling sad. From a professional perspective, that was my route in. Then also from a personal point of view, I lost my sister when I was young. It was something that, back in the 1980s, just was not talked about. People didn’t talk about grief. People would cross the road to avoid having to make any comment to my mom and me about it. I had very much grown up with the idea of, what we don’t talk about can’t hurt us. We know now, the science shows that this is wrong. The reverse is true. I really wanted to address this.

Zibby: Wow. In the book, you write about it, you call it the very sad thing, all capital letters, and how this happened. Could you share what happened with your sister? Are you willing to talk about it?

Helen: Yes. I was almost three. My sister died of sudden infant death syndrome, so out of the blue. There’s nothing anyone could’ve done. There’s nothing that could’ve altered. What could’ve been different is the way people handled it afterwards. There was no counseling at the time. There was nothing like that. My mom and dad were in despair. They also had this young toddler, me, to look after. My parents split up soon after. Just a few months after, my dad left. Nobody really talked about that either. This loss, this living loss, was something that we had with us as a family forever and something that we just didn’t talk about, which I think from speaking to people and from doing my research seems actually less uncommon than we might think. So many people go through similar experiences. Everyone experiences loss. It won’t all have been the same. I talk about this bereavement, which is when someone dies, but there’s also living losses. There’s grief. There’s grief over losing my dad. I didn’t have a relationship with him either. I was keen to address, we’ve all had stuff happen to us, and it’s how we process that. All of our losses may be varied, but the process for getting through them in a happier, healthier way is similar. That’s what I’ve been trying to pursue.

Zibby: I was so struck by the image of you as a little girl drawing the picture of your family and your mom having to tell the teacher, okay, I know she drew a picture of the four of us here, but her sister has passed away and her dad’s gone. You were like, what? He’s gone too? What do you mean? It just broke my heart, your attempts with your dad to get involved in his new wedding, for example, and want to wear a tiara. He’s like, no. You’re like, what? You have to deal with the orange backpack guy showing up dating your mom. These are a lot of things just right off the bat to have to cope with on top of loss, oh, my gosh. You just immersed us in the young version of you. My heart broke for you immediately and then have been rooting for you now with everything. Of course, this is your chosen field. It’s like, oh, that makes sense.

Helen: Yes. Actually, a therapist pointed that out many years later, that it’s no surprise at all I chose to research and write about happiness because I was also scared of being sad. I had no experience with that. I thought, of course, happiness is what we must all be wanting. We’ve all read studies saying happier people are healthier. They live longer. In fact, it’s not quite the case. This research mostly comes out of the US. Americans are outliers in the desire to avoid sadness. Actually, being terrified of being sad is what makes us sick. In East Asian culture or in Japan where they’ve done comparisons, we look so that, actually, you can feel sad, and it has no impact on your health. Being sad only makes you sick if you’re terrified of being sad. As you say, this stuff I’d grown up with and the ideas that many of us grow up with, like wanting to be a bridesmaid at my dad’s wedding — I’d seen on TV that the daughter from the first marriage gets to maybe wear a tiara and maybe ride a pony. That’s just what got to happen. In the glossy TV we watched growing up, I got some slightly skewed ideas about the world.

Zibby: Of course, there were only like five shows. Everybody watched the same thing, which I kind of miss now because there was something that sort of bonded everybody at the time, the same commercials and the same shows. You also talk in the book about the differences in the different types of depression and the difference between depression and sadness and how we’re so quick to say that we’re depressed when, actually, we’re feeling sad. Sad is okay. Sad is what we should be feeling. It doesn’t mean we have any sort of clinical diagnosis. How do people tell the difference between “I’m feeling sad, and I should feel sad” and “I’m feeling depressed” or “I am depressed”?

Helen: This is super interesting, not to minimize depression. I have experienced depression as well throughout the last twenty years. Depression is a chronic mental illness that needs help. Sadness is a temporary emotion that we feel when we have been hurt or something is wrong in our lives. Sadness can be awakening. It’s a message that can tell us what’s wrong and tell us what to do about it if we listen. Actually, studies show that if we aim to avoid sadness even just a little to the extent that many of us probably do on a day-to-day basis, we put ourselves at greater risk of normal sadness tipping into something else. The actual diagnosis of depression comes from the American Diagnostic Manual for Mental Health, so the DSM. This focuses on the symptoms rather than the cause. It doesn’t really bear in mind what’s happened to you to get to this place where you may be feeling low. If you meet five of these nine criteria for more than two weeks, you can get a diagnosis of depression.

The interesting thing, there used to be a grief clause so that you couldn’t be diagnosed with depression within two months of a bereavement. The latest version, the DSM-5, got rid of this. Of course, depression is serious. You are going to need help. It does open the possibility that a lot of normal sadness therefore gets pathologized and therefore gets a clinical diagnosis when maybe it is that we’ve just lost our spouse or that we have lost our job or been through a global pandemic, just for example. I think it is problematic. It’s not as black and white. I’ve spoke to the best neurologists and geneticists and psychologists, psychiatrists in the world. They all agree brain science is inexact. There’s so much we don’t know. My rallying call really is just to open our minds a little bit and ask “what’s happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?” and not write off any kind of medication or talking therapies, but just thinking a little bit more broadly that, actually, a baseline for all of us has to be around coming to terms with and accepting normal sadness that we will all experience.

Zibby: Why do we get sad? What is the evolutionary purpose of sadness? I understand anxiety. We’re afraid, fight or flight. It was to save our lives. We could run away from animals. I know all that stuff, but what is the purpose of us crying and feeling like we can’t get out of bed or not being able to do anything because we’re sad? Why have sadness?

Helen: It’s such a great question. The tears part, first off, Charles Darwin famously said that there was no purpose in tears at all, but we know now that when we cry, we reduce our levels of cortisol. It soothes us because we are expressing our emotions. Sadness is that emotion that makes us stop in our tracks. It’s the ruminating time. It’s very much problem-solving. It makes us more creative. If we’re happy, for example, we carry on doing that same thing to get the happiness. If something is wrong and we feel sad, it’s that message to slow down and stop and think about, oh, maybe there’s a different way I could be doing things. Sadness, it improves our attention to detail. It makes us fall less prey to the halo effect whereby we think the beautiful and rich usually can do no wrong. We are less prone to the fundamental attribution error whereby we think people mean the worst towards us. It makes us much more clear-sighted. It increases perseverance. It promotes generosity and makes us feel more connected to the people around us. We feel sad because it’s a time when we need to stop, take stock, think, okay, maybe there’s a different way I could be doing things, and to really cement our connections to the people around us. In that way, it feels hugely useful. It’s the time when we should feel most connected to our fellow human beings. If we’re trying to push it down all the time, then that’s a bit of a problem. The sadness makes us also quite grateful for what we’ve got. The philosophers going back to the stoics have believed this. Research from the University of New South Wales has found that we are more grateful when we’re feeling sad. It’s a really helpful emotion for stopping and taking stock, I’d say, which I think round about now feels very useful indeed.

Zibby: Interesting. Do you think those are temporary or persistent? Can they seep into your personality for good? If I’m sad a lot as a child, will I grow up to be a more grateful person, or am I more grateful in the aftermath of that sadness episode?

Helen: That’s a great question. There’s a couple of things there. Our predisposition to happiness or sadness is down to genetics and early childhood experience and lifestyle. The first two, we can’t control, largely. The third, we can, so that kind of depends. There’s also looking into antidepressants and what’s happening in our brains when we take, for example, SSRIs. They are trying to stop the serotonin from leaving our brain so quickly. Scientists are still not quite sure how antidepressants work. You think, goodness, after all of these years and all of this money and big pharma and what have you, nobody still quite knows, is the answer often. One theory is that we have these scars in our brain. If we’ve experienced something perhaps from a young age or perhaps repeatedly, we get these scars where we are more prone to think in a certain way. I tend to think of them as doom rivulets in your brain, just this puddle that goes through, which can be a fairly depressing way of thinking about the world, but there are some theories around that. Then there’s also neuroplasticity, that we can change our brain. We can learn new things. There could well be a sense that some people are more prone to this, but I would also add that there is hope. There are things that we can do. That’s helpful.

Zibby: I’ve never heard SSRIs described that way. It’s almost like the rainstorm washing away the pads in the sand. Then you get a fresh start. Is that what you meant by the rivulets and everything?

Helen: The SSRIs are supposed to help the serotonin stay in. What’s weird is that when you take SSRIs, you get the side effects straight away, but you don’t get the effects of stopping the serotonin drain straight away. Something’s going on. It’s really quite disconcerting when you speak to these enormous brains of geneticists and psychiatrists. They just shrug a bit. We don’t know. You think, oh, my word, what hope do the rest of us have?

Zibby: But they’re in favor of them, though. Do they say that SSRIs then prohibit those other good things from coming as a result of sadness?

Helen: That’s interesting. No, I think largely — it’s to generalize, but I would say that most professionals err on caution and would say, stick with what you’re doing, but complement it with other things as well. The neuroscientist I worked with on the book was Dean Burnett. He’s very much both and all and just trying to try everything because there’s so much that we still don’t know. I guess if medication is working for someone, then they should absolutely stay with it. For some people, medication doesn’t work. Then you’re thinking, what else can I be doing? For some people, medication may not be necessary because there are other things we can be doing to accept and understand our normal sadness before we get to that stage.

Zibby: I think part of sadness is that it’s not — even though, as you’re pointing out, of course, it has good side effects, if you will, but in the course of a normal day, it’s not very socially acceptable. My daughter can’t go to school and cry all day. She’s like, my teacher will get mad. You just can’t. You can’t be productive if you are crying all day. You can’t go do your job if you can’t get out of bed. I don’t feel like society is particularly well-set up for big bouts of sadness at unpredictable times.

Helen: That’s really interesting. There’s another couple things there. Firstly, emotional regulation that many of us don’t learn as a child. We may have been told if we fall down, you get up again. If we’re scared, we’ll be told there’s nothing to be afraid of. We have our emotions minimized. Then we come to almost distrust them as children because we are told what we’re feeling is not valid in some way. It’s so easy to do. If a child is sad, you’re like, don’t cry. Stop crying. Actually, that might not be the most helpful thing to do despite our inclination to want to make things better for our kids. We love them. Labeling that emotion and helping them understand that granularity of it is really helpful for kids. If we didn’t get that as a child, we can try and do that for ourselves as adults. You’re right in terms of culturally, yeah, rest and relaxation are not valued in our society. Activity is what is prized. That is a bigger problem. We don’t measure our productivity by how many acres we harvest anymore, so our productivity and the amount of time we spend working becomes a proxy. That is a problem because perhaps there are some days when we are not going to be most effective. There’s lots of interesting research into women’s cycles and hormones and what different parts of the month we would be most effective at doing different tasks, which I find fascinating. Again, as you say, it feels sometimes like a luxury. You think, I have to get this done today. I think there is much room for flexibility and trying to adopt a bit more of an understanding approach that would help all of us to be more productive long term.

Zibby: That’s so true. I definitely have days where I’m just like, I am too sad to work. I can’t get anything done. I can’t even deal with my computer. I can’t sit at my desk. This day is a wash. Then the next day, I have twice as much work to do.

Helen: I’m a big fan of the idea of if a day is really bad, you go to bed early to get it over with. Then you’ve got longer the next day. That’s always pleasurable.

Zibby: That’s always nice if you can do that. What do you think we should tell our kids? What do the researchers, scientists say? I feel like the takeaway I’ve gotten and that I try to do is instead of saying, “You shouldn’t be scared,” necessarily, or “I understand that video must have totally freaked you out. I get it. However, there is no one hiding in the toilet,” or something like that. “You don’t need to be scared because that thing is not happening, but I understand you feel scared because of the video.” Maybe that’s not the right tactic.

Helen: Again, the research and the studies that I have read are around, as you say, it’s not minimizing it, but it’s saying, yeah, that would be really scary. If there was a monster in the toilet, that would be really scary. Fair play to you, but let’s look together. I’m glad that you told me about this. Let’s think about this. Trying to put ourselves in the shoes of a child and trying to remember what that felt like, it’s terrifying. My four-year-old right now has chicken pox, which you vaccinate for in the US. I’m so envious.

Zibby: Oh, no!

Helen: She’s just miserable. Life feels awful. It’s reminding her, yeah, that does suck right now. You won’t feel like that forever. I know this is awful. I’m really sorry about that. It’s sitting with that pain. I’m thinking back to ourselves as children. I do think that is really helpful and would’ve helped you feel quite comforted in that time.

Zibby: I’m so sorry about the chicken pox. I had the chicken pox. It was the worst thing ever, oh, my gosh. At least it’s over with at an early age. It gets worse as they get older. I think that the pandemic for kids in particular has been so hard. I have two fourteen-year-olds. Then I have an eight-year-old and a six-year-old. Because of all this Zoom school and all these optional things, they don’t buy it that school is essential. It feels like an option. Whereas the older kids and everybody else and people our age or whatever, it’s not a question. Of course, nothing changes school. After a year and a half of, this week is remote, this week is not remote, it’s very hard to be like, no, no, school is required. Even as a parent, what do you even do with that? Of course, you’re sad. You’d rather be sitting on your computer hanging out with the dog. It’s hard.

Helen: That’s a tough one, feeling things are optional. Because of the last eighteen months, everything’s felt slightly optional. It’s really tough. You often want to go to school, for example, to see your peers. Everyone’s been lacking that connection over the last eighteen months, which is so hard as well, especially at a formative age.

Zibby: It’s so hard, oh, my gosh. Your book could not come at a better time, which is good for you, I guess.

Helen: I didn’t plan this.

Zibby: Tell me about the process of the writing and the research and how you decided to structure the book. You have your own history. You tell it in a very narrative way. Then you mix it up with the experts. How did you arrive at this particular way to package up this content? Did you debate other ways? All of that.

Helen: I read a lot of fiction. I read a lot of nonfiction. Whenever I read nonfiction, sometimes writing’s very good and very funny and everything, but there’s no soul. There’s no heart. There’s no narrative arc. Why do I care? Well done, you’re being very funny and witty, but why do I care? For me as a reader and as a writer, it’s really important to have a story go somewhere. It happens that my life, in this case, is a story that has gone somewhere. I wanted to be honest about my own experience because I can’t ask other people to do that if I’m not willing to do it myself and also because part of my big manifesto is shaking off the shame around sadness and apologizing for how we’re feeling, which is something we’re really good at in the UK. Just the idea, oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m crying, pouring out of this emotion, actually, that’s not that helpful.

I felt that I wanted to share to encourage others to do the same. That has been a really interesting response. People have got in touch and shared their own stories, and very personal often. I also want there to be the science there as well. I am not a scientist. I am a journalist. For me, it was really important to speak to as many experts as I could and then bring in some names from popular culture and some people who I’ve admired for a long time who I think have dealt with interesting things in ways that we might not expect. I’ve got someone who was addicted to drugs for many years. I’ve got people who’ve been through bereavement. Trying to really understand the different experiences that I may not have had so that I can offer those up as well and try and understand the things that underpin all of them because there are some universals that I think we could all benefit from.

Zibby: Then when did you decide to start your podcast, “How to be Sad”? which, by the way, I listened to. I was like, ooh, I love how she did her introduction. I’m like, how can I change my introduction? Maybe I need this cool British voice that you have going here or something.

Helen: The book, I really wrote before COVID-19 and then finished the final edit during the first lockdown, actually. During the lockdown, oh, my goodness, I missed people, as you must have found also. That is part of what gives me energy, is talking to people and having long-form conversations and meeting new people. I just hadn’t done it. I got a new neighbor. I was so giddy with excitement at meeting someone new. I thought, I can’t put all of this on this poor guy who’s just moved in door. I thought, I know, I’ll start a podcast. Because the book was coming out, it felt like I had something behind me to say, it’s not that I’m just being incredibly curious. Let’s carry on this conversation. That’s been really interesting, speaking to people from all walks of life. It’s a great excuse to say, actually, I’ve always wanted to speak to that person. Let’s have a conversation. To just get an hour with someone is a real privilege. That’s been fascinating. We just started series three and had some amazing guests like Desmond Tutu’s granddaughter and daughter. I’ve got a rockstar coming up this week. It’s a lot of fun.

Zibby: Wow. This is now my new favorite podcast. I’m very excited. I’m super interested in all of the stuff you’re doing. I was a psychology major, but just from a personal standpoint, I find this research and all of it so completely fascinating. The fact that you explore this underexplored area I found to be just — the way you did it, too, was really, really great. So what have you been sad about lately?

Helen: That’s a great question. I still miss friends and family. Things are opening up a little bit where I am. I live in Denmark right now. I’m getting to see family a bit, but not much. There’s people I haven’t seen for two years now. That’s really hard, best friends. My kids are not growing up near the people who we thought were only an hour’s plane ride away. Suddenly, that distance really stretches when you can’t get to people. Life is hard. I think that’s what really taught me as well. I started researching into happiness. I tried to live Danishly. I tried to adopt all of these happiness principles, but at the core, it’s about connections. Our personal relationships are one of the key indicators of happiness worldwide. If those parts are compromised, that’s a massive hurdle. That’s something that is an ongoing process of trying to work on and trying to build that up again. I have lovely friends near where I am now, but I’m missing people and those personal connections quite a lot right now.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I totally know how you feel. The Year of Living Danishly, your best-selling book prior to this, is now a TV show or it’s in the works or something. Tell me about that.

Helen: It has been optioned. You know TV Land. Who knows what will happen? There’s a lot of meetings where people say nice things. We shall see.

Zibby: Got it. What is your next project going to be?

Helen: I’m very interested, I’m researching and writing a little bit about Hans Christian Andersen, the great fairy tale guy. I’m looking into that right now. I’m speaking to a few people about some other radio projects. We shall see. I’m trying to catch my breath a little.

Zibby: Maybe that can be your subtitle, the great fairy tale guy.

Helen: That guy, yeah.

Zibby: I love it. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Helen: I trained as a journalist. Then I became an editor. I think that’s been really helpful, having that editing head as well as the writing head. It’s the discipline to get your butt in a chair and do it even when you don’t feel like it. Then it’s having that other critical brain, which you don’t want on too much because then you will sabotage everything and not get anything done, but to be able to edit the work and edit and edit and edit again until it’s in a state that you’re happy with to share with someone else. It’s the discipline and the diligence and trying to come from it from a creative angle. It’s not easy, though. It doesn’t make you rich and buy you a yacht.

Zibby: Thank you so much. This has been so fascinating and really enjoyable. Thank you so much. I loved it. Thank you.

Helen: Very lovely to meet you. Thank you very much for having me.

Zibby: I hope your kids feel better soon.

Helen: Thanks.

Zibby: Calamine lotion, lots of calamine.

Helen: Yes, everyone’s pink right now.

Zibby: Great. Perfect. Take care. Buh-bye.

Helen: Take care. Buh-bye.

Helen Russell, HOW TO BE SAD

HOW TO BE SAD by Helen Russell

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