Why Do I Feel Sad for No Reason?

Almost all of us have suffered at times from free-floating sadness that doesn't seem to be rooted in a particular event. Why do we feel sad for no reason, and how do we know when there is extra cause for concern?

Sadness is part of being human, but there is a difference between a temporary sense of feeling down and a more persistent condition, experts say.

"Sadness is one of life's normal emotions; we are evolutionarily geared to feel a range of different emotions," Dr. Antonis Kousoulis, director for England and Wales at the U.K. Mental Health Foundation, told Newsweek. "It may feel that there is no obvious reason, but there will be some underlying cause."

Depressed woman
A woman sitting on a bus in Glasgow, Scotland on Nov. 1, the most miserable day of the year, according to polls Getty

In many cases, the cause might be hormonal. In women, the changes of adolescence, pregnancy and menopause can all contribute to hormonal fluctuations that can cause temporary feelings of sadness, he said, adding that in men, hormonal changes in later life can have a similar effect.

Unexplained feelings of sadness can also be linked to relationships or to a missing sense of validation or achievement at work. "Sadness is very linked to how we see ourselves in our life or to feeling stuck with life," Kousoulis says.

Sad feelings can also build up, so feeling down on a given day may reflect a more complex history of feelings.

Do I Have Depression?

While sadness is a normal emotion, depression is a more serious condition.

"Sadness is the most common face of how depression is expressed" Kousoulis said. "We may feel consistently sad and have a sense of hopelessness and pessimism. This is why we in mental health have this diagnostic system to differentiate between ups and downs and situations that can be quite disabling."

A key sign of depression, as opposed to sadness, is the failure to get pleasure out of things we would normally enjoy, such as relationships, work, or sex, he says.

Insomnia or oversleeping, a loss of appetite or overeating, and an overall lack of energy or feelings of pain are all symptoms not usually triggered by mere sadness. They are other signals that our bodies are experiencing more deep-seated distress.

How to Stop Feeling Sad

There are cultural differences in how societies view sadness, Kousoulis says. While North American and some western European countries are more likely to prize positivity, attitudes can be quite different in Asia or Africa, or even Eastern Europe.

"Not everything is supposed to be treated with happiness," he adds. "I think there is a cultural problem with a society that demonizes negative emotions."

A fear of expressing sadness, due to stigma, can also lead to repression of emotions and a failure to process them, according the Gundersen health system's health and wellness page.

When it isn't prolonged, sadness is a necessary emotion and can even be beneficial.

"We are not designed to be happy all the time," says Dr. Kousoulis. "Sometimes sadness is a sign that we are lacking or missing something."

Indeed, research has repeatedly indicated the value of sadness. A 2011 study found that those who were most engaged at work were those who switched from a negative to a positive mood. A 2007 journal article showed that people in a negative mood were more persuasive in interpersonal relationships than people in positive moods.

Another study showed that a negative frame of mind can make people less susceptible to misinformation.

Ultimately, sadness has the capacity to remind us of something we have lost, so it has the potential to make us more empathetic. And there are practical ways to move on from sad feelings.

Writing in a journal, listening to music and spending time with friends or family or engaging in artistic activities can provide a catalyst for expressing sadness, according to the Gundersen site, which advises people to "ride the wave of the experience."

Practicing mindfulness
Participants at the Body & Soul Festival at Ballinlough Castle, Ireland, June 25, 2017. Getty