Sadness: The surprising emotion that improves focus

Everything you’re about to read started from a fractured tooth. Seriously. It’s a bit embarrassing to share, but then, we all have our weak moments.

Last year, a tooth in my upper jaw started to go south on me. It began as a slow ache and mild sensitivity to cold.

I gutted it out, because I was in the middle of moving my family from California to Nevada. In January, I finally saw the dentist. X-rays revealed a cracked filling.

My dentist removed the old amalgam and fashioned a spiffy new crown, right there in his office. I paid my bill and whistled out the door. Problem solved.

Until a month later. Suddenly, there was pain again, and a sharp sensitivity to cold. So, back to the dentist. More X-rays, but no sign of a problem.

“X-rays don’t pick up everything, John. I’m referring you to an endodontist. He can drill through your new crown and do a root canal,” my dentist said with a smile.

“Great.” It was all I could say.

It’s too unstable

The endodontist was a kind man with a gentle touch. He also figured out what was going on. Turns out, the problem was not my new crown but the tooth behind it. It had a fracture.

An hour into the subsequent root canal, the endodontist said, “John, I just found a second fracture in this tooth. I don’t think it’s a candidate for a crown. It’s too unstable. I’m going to refer you to an oral surgeon for extraction.”

“Swell,” I mumbled, as the assistant provided more suction.

A week later, I was getting generous amounts of novocaine speared into my jaw by the smiling oral surgeon. Okay, it wasn’t a spear, but it was a substantial needle.

The oral surgeon explained that he’d drill apart the tooth, and then extract each of the three roots.

I know, doesn’t that just sound special?

My creativity intensified

I should add that during all of this, I was still getting over a bad head cold. My ears were plugged up, and I wasn’t feeling my best.

At one point, the drilling got intense. Even though there was no pain, the rattling in my head was magnified by my plugged up ears. And then the surgeon gripped part of the tooth and I could hear him cracking away at it.

This didn’t really happen, but it felt like it.

I had to hold my hand up and gesture for him to stop. It was totally weird. I felt this wave of anxiety… and sadness. I started thinking about the fact that this tooth has been with me all my life. And now, it’s getting ripped out of my jaw.

It’s silly, I know. I think the fact I wasn’t feeling well amplified my emotions. You know how sometimes, when you’re home with the flu, it seems like Hallmark movies can just destroy you? Perhaps illness brings our feelings closer to the surface?

Eventually, I calmed down and waived the surgeon on. He finished in short order, they stuffed gauze in my mouth, I paid the bill, and that was that.

The surgeon called me that night to ask how I was doing. I said “fine” because there was no pain. But strangely, a little part of me was still down. Like I was mourning my lost tooth, or lamenting the aging process.

The unexpected part in all of this is that my creativity intensified. Somehow, this mild melancholy fueled a lot of creative ideas. I jotted them down in my journal, pleased with the flow of thoughts and epiphanies.

It feels so good to hurt so bad

We live in a culture enamored with happiness. We read blog posts on how to be happier. We watch movies and long for happy endings.

There’s nothing wrong with happiness. We all long for well-being and relief from life’s challenges and hardships. None of us want to suffer with prolonged sadness.

But sometimes, we want a little sadness. A bit of melancholy in a movie. A sad, touching novel. A song that conjures past emotions of loss, or a breakup, or lingering emotions.

Elton John sang about sadness in his song Sad Songs (Say So Much).

The song lyrics contain the following:

If someone else is suffering enough oh to write it down
When every single word makes sense
Then it’s easier to have those songs around
The kick inside is in the line that finally gets to you
And it feels so good to hurt so bad
And suffer just enough to sing the blues

Sadness is a universal emotion. When writers, musicians, artists and actors invoke sadness in their work, it helps us connect with our own feelings.

Sometimes, we just need to take a break and have a good cry. Let out the pent up frustration and unhappiness. Sad movies, books and songs help us do that. It’s like we need that time out, to purge our demons. Afterward, we usually start feeling better.

The unexpected thing about sadness is that it benefits us in several ways, not the least of which is improved focus.

The power of sadness

According to an article by marriage and family therapist Betty Tullius:

“Studies have shown that, contrary to being a ‘useless’ emotion, sadness is beneficial to us in ways that actually enhance our well-being. Joseph Paul Forgas, Ph.D., has discovered that when we are sad, we can remember details more accurately, have better judgment, and have more motivation than when we are happy. This seems to be due in part to sadness functioning as a signal that something is not right, making us more attentive to detail, more alert to social cues, and/or more motivated to make changes.”
I know there’s truth to this, because when my father passed away, I had to handle everything. The life insurance, notifications, obituary, memorial, burial, finances, his estate, and more. Throughout the whole ordeal, despite my sadness, I was razor focussed.

Another time, a former mentor of mine passed away. He was a retired police chief I used to work for. When he died, I was serving as police chief, and responsible for arranging his entire memorial service.

The event required weeks of planning, including bagpipes, honor guard, flag ceremony, speakers, parking, family coordination and more. Despite my sadness, I was on top of my game in every aspect. I had complete focus.

Betty Tullius notes:

“Embracing sadness, on the other hand, helps us identify what is wrong and promotes thinking of ways to cope with and heal from difficult experiences. It allows us to know ourselves better and increases our empathy for others. Talking about the feeling connects us, elicits support, and brings more meaning to our relationships. We do not have to do anything to begin this process because when we experience difficulties, sadness prompts us to slow down and feel, which is exactly what we need to do to heal.”

In the article Four Ways Sadness May Be Good for You, psychologist Joseph P. Forgas notes:

“Sad people are more focused on external cues and will not rely solely on their first impressions, which happy people are more inclined to trust.”

Forgas goes on to write:

“Sad people are less prone to judgmental errors, are more resistant to eye-witness distortions, are sometimes more motivated, and are more sensitive to social norms. They can act with more generosity, too.”

Who knew that sadness enhanced focus, mental acuity, greater sensitivity and even generosity? Maybe sadness temporarily interrupts the ebullient chatter in our brains, thus settling into a calmer (albeit sadder) state.

It’s important to draw a distinction between occasional sadness and prolonged depression. The latter requires the right care and treatment.

Forgas sums up the benefits of occasional sadness with the following observation:

“Perhaps that is why, even though feeling sad can be hard, many of the greatest achievements of Western art, music, and literature explore the landscape of sadness. In everyday life, too, people often seek ways to experience sadness, at least from time to time — by listening to sad songs, watching sad movies, or reading sad books.”

A lighter heart

Years ago, I came across a slender novel in a bookstore. It was “The Notebook,” by Nicholas Sparks. It was the book that launched Nicholas Sparks’ writing career.

I read a bit of the beginning, and ended up purchasing the book. I found the entire story very moving. Here’s an excerpt from the novel:

“I am nothing special, of this I am sure. I am a common man with common thoughts and I’ve led a common life. There are no monuments dedicated to me and my name will soon be forgotten, but I’ve loved another with all my heart and soul, and to me, this has always been enough..” ― Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook)

Reading “The Notebook” tapped my emotions. It made me feel moments of sadness. It made me reflect on the nature of relationships and love. The sadness it brought out in me informed some of my creative projects.

Not everyone cares for sad novels or Hallmark movies. Sometimes they can become excessively sentimental. But when a novel, song, piece of art or movie gets it right with sadness, it can truly connect with us. It can change our lives.

The next time sadness alights on your shoulders, take heart. It happens to all of us from time to time. Heck, it happened to me during a tooth extraction!

The good news is that sadness can sharpen your focus. Maybe even lead you to creative breakthroughs with your work.

So go ahead, read that sad novel. Listen to that mournful song. Bawl your eyes out to that melancholy movie. Your focus will improve, you’ll purge those bad feelings, and eventually emerge with a lighter heart.

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One last thing


I’m John P. Weiss. I paint landscapes, draw cartoons and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest cartoons and blog posts.

This article first appeared on Medium.