Why Do We Feel Sadness More Strongly Than Joy?

Everyone experiences life differently, but if negativity just sticks with you more, you're not alone.
Lonely woman sitting in room
Photo: Jasmin Merdan / Getty

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

As humans, we’re programmed to experience negative emotions more intensely than positive ones. In psychology, this is known as a negativity bias; a tendency of our brains to register negative events or feelings more strongly than happy memories.


This definitively rings true to my own experiences. I remember particularly nice days, obviously, but when I think of life-changing moments, it's always the worst experiences that come to mind first.  I still sometimes think about my very first breakup, even though it happened years ago. Of course, it’s totally OK to hold on to bad memories – but why do they stick with us so much more than good ones? Is sorrow just a stronger emotion than joy?

Mareile Poettering is a therapist and mental coach who specialises in psychosomatic illnesses, which are physical conditions caused by mental health issues. She has a tonne of experience dealing with patients’ trauma, negative emotions and the way they manifest in the body. I asked her about grief, heartbreak and learning to enjoy life even if you’re going through a lot of negativity.

Mareile Poettering – blond woman with blue eyes walking in a sunny field amid trees.

Mareile Poettering. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

VICE: Why do we feel sadness more than happiness?
Mareile Poettering: Actually, you can't generalise that, everyone experiences emotions in a different way. But in my profession, I have noticed that many people do feel difficult emotions more strongly than positive ones. 

Why do you think that is?
From a social perspective, we try to avoid negativity at all costs. Grief and pain are more threatening to us than good feelings. Joy is less likely to represent danger, which is why we are less likely to deal with it emotionally. Many people haven’t learned to celebrate joy.


Processing a negative emotion like heartbreak can take quite a bit of work. On the other hand, if I've had a particularly good day, I don't stay up at night thinking about it. Is joy a more passive emotion?
If we practised holding positive emotions within us, we would perceive joy much more intensely. On the other hand, we simply cannot overcome difficult emotions passively – if we don't deal with them, they remain with us and show their effects through our body. They can even develop into mental illness.

How does negativity physically manifest itself?
I've observed in so many patients how strongly unprocessed emotions can affect the body. One example is broken heart syndrome [sudden chest pain that makes people think they're having a heart attack], which can be triggered by tremendous stress or suffering.

Difficult feelings are necessary in life; that's why I don't call them negative or bad. Without them, we can't feel beautiful emotions either. They have so much potential, it's just important to be able to deal with them. We can repress them, but only into some sort of inner basement. There, these repressed emotions continue to rage. This is exactly what leads to psychosomatic effects in the form of illnesses. 

When we keep experiencing grief over and over again, does it mean we haven’t finished processing it?
Yes. It's more difficult to cope with heartbreak, for example, if you don’t know it’ll come with emotions other than grief, like anger and shame. You can't simply erase a person who was important to you. 

Shame and low self-esteem in particular are so negatively perceived in our society that we try to avoid them at all costs, even though they’re present in all of us. We often tell ourselves that we only experience sadness because that is more socially acceptable. But usually, there is much more to it than that.