Sadness vs. Depression: What’s the Difference?

Sadness vs. Depression: What’s the Difference?

Sad hurts, but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different. 

J.K. Rowling

Ask just about anyone what depression means to them, and one word is likely to come up:


It’s the “face” of depression we see on medication ads and in popular fiction.

And it’s true:

Sadness and depression sometimes go together.

But not always.

So, how do you distinguish between a feeling of sadness that’s “normal” and something that may signal a need for greater support?

Today we’re breaking down 4 key ways to differentiate sadness vs. depression:

1. Depression is common; sadness is universal.

Sadness is an experience shared by every one of us.

You know what it feels like…

You know what it can look like…

You may experience it several times throughout the course of a regular day…

(You might even be experiencing it right now!)

Sadness is a universal part of life. 

Though we may try to chase it away at times, sadness is not a bad thing.

It’s not, for example, the opposite of happiness.

And when it comes to living an emotionally healthy life, sadness actually plays an important role.

(But more on that later.)

Depression, on the other hand– though common– is not an experience shared by everyone.

And while it may include feelings of sadness…

…it doesn’t always.

In fact, depression is complex and can encompass any of the following signs:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities one typically enjoys
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear cause and/or that don’t ease with treatment

Check in with yourself:

Are you experiencing any of the above, most of the day, nearly every day? If so, you might benefit from additional support

2. Depression is persistent; sadness is temporary.

When thinking about sadness (and other emotions, like anger, for example…), it can be helpful to view them like the weather.

Just as the weather can change unexpectedly, so can your mood.

You might be going about your day, business as usual, when suddenly you notice that you feel sad.

You might not enjoy feeling sad…

But, chances are, the sadness (like any other emotion) will eventually pass.

Depression, meanwhile, isn’t as temporary.

In fact, depression can be frustratingly persistent.

Despite your best efforts, depression isn’t something you can simply wait out.

It tends to linger…

Hanging over your head.

Following you around.

Taking up residence in your thoughts, your emotions, your behaviors, even in the way your body feels.  

The good news?

With time and effort, depression can be shifted.

But it usually takes some help.

Check in with yourself:

Have you been feeling this way more often than not for a couple of weeks? If so, you might benefit from additional support

3. Depression doesn’t always make sense; sadness usually does.

Want to make life a bit easier for someone experiencing depression?

Try not to ask why they’re depressed.

Because in reality?

They may not know.

There might not be even a single reason they can point to.

In this way, depression doesn’t always make sense.

It’s true that traumatic life events and other stressors can contribute to depression.

But, not always.

You probably know someone in your life who’s been though some incredibly painful or challenging things.

And yet they’re not depressed.

Meanwhile, some of the most “successful” people in our society struggle immensely.

Sadness, on the other hand, usually has a rhyme or reason to it.

A clear cause.

A starting point.

A purpose.

And because many of us still relate sadness to depression, when we or someone we know is depressed, we can’t help but ask:


Check in with yourself:

Forget for a moment about the reasons you “should” or “shouldn’t” be experiencing depression, and answer honestly: Are you concerned about what you’re noticing? If so, you might benefit from additional support

4. Depression is dangerous; sadness is healthy.

No matter what circumstances are surrounding your experience of depression…

Maybe you’re a new mother.

Maybe you struggle with this every year around the same time.

Maybe there’s no reason in the world for you to be hurting.

Maybe there’s every reason.

…this much is certain:

Left unaddressed, depression can be dangerous; even lethal.

It’s also one of the most common things that bring people to therapy.

So, even if you’re just mildly concerned. Or think you could benefit from some extra support…

Please consider consulting with a professional.

Sadness, on the hand, is a healthy part of life.

After all, feeling a wide range of emotions is an important part of enjoying good emotional wellness.

We tend to focus primarily on bring more of the  “good” feelings into our lives.

But, the truth is that our “negative” emotions contain really useful information that can teach us so much about ourselves and our relationships with the world around us.

Just like anger and frustration, sadness can be a powerful signal, drawing our attention to some aspect of our experience:

When our actions are out of sync with our values.

When one of our boundaries is being crossed.

When there is distance from someone or something we love.

When we’re in need of greater care and compassion.

The challenge is to pause and be mindful of our sadness when we feel it.

And to learn whatever it has to teach us.

Check in with yourself:

Interested in learning more about healthy emotions? Think you may be experiencing depression? If so, you might benefit from additional support

Enjoy this post? You might also like:

Seasonal Depression Treatment
Suicide Prevention: 3 Practical Steps We All Can (and Should) Take
Therapy 101: 7 Signs You Might Benefit from Therapy

Think you may be experiencing depression? Ready to talk with a therapist?