Is Sadness a Disease?

NEW YORK – Sadness is one of the small number of human emotions that have been recognized in all societies and in all time periods. Some of the earliest known epics, such as The Iliad and Gilgamesh , feature protagonists’ intense sadness after the loss of close comrades. Likewise, anthropological work across a great range of societies clearly describes emotions of sadness that develop in response to frustration in love, humiliation by rivals, or the inability to achieve valued cultural goals.

Even primates display physiological and behavioral signs after losses that are unmistakably similar to sadness among humans. There is little doubt that evolution designed people to have a propensity to become sad after such situations.

Depressive mental disorders also have been known for as long as written records have been kept. Writing in the fifth century b.c., Hippocrates provided the first known definition of melancholia (what we now call “depression”) as a distinct disorder: “If fear or sadness last for a long time it is melancholia.” The symptoms that Hippocrates associated with melancholic disorder – “aversion to food, despondency, sleeplessness, irritability, restlessness” – are remarkably similar to those contained in modern definitions of depressive disorder.

Like Hippocrates, physicians throughout history have recognized that the symptoms of normal sadness and depressive disorder were similar. Depressive disorders differed from normal reactions because they either arose in the absence of situations that would normally produce sadness or were of disproportionate magnitude or duration relative to whatever cause provoked them.