Sadness is one of the earliest emotions we discover as children. Babies feel sad for the same reasons adults do, like loneliness and discomfort. By the time they reach the age of 2, children may screech in agony when they skin their knees, and at preschool age, they might throw screaming fits when they don't get their way.
As we grow and become adults, we learn to harness our sadness in healthier ways, like talking, reading, and crying. But what about adults or adolescents whose emotions turn unhealthy and begin to affect their daily lives, the people who are suffering from not sadness but depression?
Depression and sadness are two words with very different meanings. We spoke with two experts about the differences between the two, and both agree that one can have absolutely nothing to do with the other.
How We Define Sadness vs. Depression
Psychiatry.org defines depression (major depressive disorder) as a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act.
Boris MacKey, addiction specialist and Community Outreach Manager at Rehab 4 Addiction, says sadness and depression often overlap but are very distinct.
"Psychologically, they are dissimilar and present differently within people," MacKey says. "Sadness is a natural but temporary reaction to events or things that happen throughout our lives. On the other hand, depression is a chemical imbalance that reduces the overall quality of a person's life."
Dr. Bailey Hanek, a licensed clinical psychologist, says the association between depression and sadness is solid, which is why they are often used interchangeably, but their differences are vast.
While sadness is a major component of depression, you can be depressed without necessarily feeling sad, says Dr. Hanek. "Increased irritability, jealousy, quicker to anger, and having less empathy could all be signs of depression."
Whether or not someone crosses into the depression atmosphere varies depending on the person. MacKey says time is a factor in what constitutes sadness versus depression, but it's not the only component.
"Most healthcare professionals agree that if someone is exhibiting signs of severe sadness for over two weeks, then they are most likely struggling with depression and should seek help," MacKey explains. "I think it's important not only to recognize the length of time a person has felt like this but their overall mood and internal feelings."
Understanding the Triggers of Sadness
Dr. Hanek notes that there are other circumstances, such as grief, in which sadness can linger past two weeks and not be considered depression.
"Grief and depression can look very similar, and depression can be a part of someone's grief," Dr. Hanek explains. "But the current consensus is that we consider grief separate from depression." Grief and sadness are also more universal: "Grieving and feeling sad are all standard parts of being human that everyone experiences and should pass with time," MacKey says.
In addition to grief, other scenarios can trigger sadness, such as divorce, the holidays, or another life event. These situations may result in an extended period of sadness, but this sadness is still different from depression.
"Many people feel sad during the holidays, as it can be a very emotional time," MacKey says. "I don't necessarily think that everyone suddenly becomes depressed during the holidays; it is more that it can be a very stressful time for people due to family conflict amongst many other things."
How Depression Is Different From Sadness
In contrast to grief or sadness, depression mutes the color in the world. The difference between being sad versus depressed during the holidays is identifying why you feel the way you do and how well you cope with it.
"Identifying — I feel sad because maybe I'm alone on the holidays — that's sadness; that's loneliness," Dr. Hanek explains. "That's different than sort of not being able to function."
While sadness is almost always dependent on a circumstance, depression doesn't need a precise trigger. Even what we experience in life and what we learn does contribute to depression.
"For a lot of people, depression is truly a biopsychosocial process," Dr. Hanek says.
The biopsychosocial model considers biological, social, environmental, and psychological factors when evaluating someone's physical or mental health. According to Dr. Hanek, this means depression isn't just biological, social, or ecological; it stems from all of these factors.
"Each person deals with their mental health differently," MacKey says. "And while a specific event may cause one person to spiral into feelings of depression, another person may be unable to shake feelings of depression due to no particular cause."
Both experts agree that depression can affect almost anyone at any time in life, and it's essential to seek help as soon as possible via medication, therapy, or a combination of both.