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  • Life’s not all sugar, spice and everything nice
  • Life’s not all sugar, spice and everything nice
    Marco Nunes, Creative Commons (2014) ©

Is sadness society's unsung hero?

As male depression gains broader public attention and young women adopt a ‘sad aesthetic’ online, brands are being challenged to consider how they communicate to an emotionally charged society. How can they help people in their quest for inner happiness and free expression?

Location Global

In an era seemingly beset by gloom, there seems enough to be unhappy about; political and financial failures, climate disasters and civil unrest are becoming everyday news in a world which appears continuously stuck in chaos. Affluent parts of the developing world face health issues more commonly associated with the excesses of the West, while well-off economies are looking for a greater sense of purpose and fulfilment aside from material gain. [1]

“We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in US history,” said Brene Brown, a leading researcher and authority on vulnerability, in 2010. [2] Her words remain relevant in the face of a society reeling from the excesses of overworking and over-indulgent living in the promise of greater financial gain and corporate status. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that there is a growing appreciation for the value of softer emotions, both in life and in business. [3]


Emotional society
Over 50 million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued in the UK in 2013, and figures for male depression are soaring, with men accounting for 76% of suicides in 2014. [4][5] It’s this latter statistic that led Esquire to launch its male mentoring programme in 2015, attracting a host of male celebrities to talk about what ‘makes a man’. The project challenged traditional masculinity roles and the stigma surrounding men showing emotions.

Social platforms are a major catalyst for supporting the expression of free thought, attests Jayne Hardy, founder of depression charity The Blurt Foundation. “People are getting more comfortable with expressing their emotions and talking about depression online,” she says. “We’ve noticed a shift from emailing and private messaging to talking about depression publicly; it’s a big shift from struggling alone.” [6] In early 2016, Blurt launched #WhatYouDontSee, a social media campaign which sought to raise awareness of the ‘invisible’ symptoms of depression, which are often masked by sufferers. [7]

Yet while social media can prove to be a force for good in getting important messages across, it can also present a dark space for venting less readily welcomed emotions such as aggression, jealousy and hatred. Leadership coach Nigel Pacey, founder of Huntcliff Consultancy, points to the limitations of expression and connection on social platforms. Referring to the 140-character limit on Twitter, he argues that some platforms can feel superficial. “You aren’t making deep connections,” he says. [8]

Discussion of depression is no longer taboo Discussion of depression is no longer taboo
The Blurt Foundation (2016) ©

The power of vulnerability
It’s important not to confuse mental health issues with unhappiness or even vulnerability, which Brown describes as the ‘courage to show up and let ourselves be seen’ – the cornerstone of authentic living. Several corporate and political leaders have demonstrated vulnerability in recent times. For instance, US President Barack Obama has publicly shed tears on several occasions, and these displays of emotion have added to the notion of him as a sincere leader. [9]

In 2013, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg admitted to crying in the boardroom. [10] The admission came at a time when the female empowerment movement was gaining traction, and it demonstrated the power of vulnerability in an unexpected context – something which Hardy feels is increasingly important in the realm of leadership. “When you open the door of vulnerability, people will follow you in,” she says. “It starts with leaders, people who can put their head above the parapet and be open. It sets off a wave of courage and kindness.” [6]

When you open the door of vulnerability, people will follow you in. It starts with leaders, people who can put their head above the parapet and be open. It sets off a wave of courage and kindness

Jayne Hardy, founder of The Blurt Foundation

In 2016, Hillary Clinton gave an interview to Humans of New York, describing the challenges she’s faced in striking an emotional balance within a professional context. “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional,” she said. “But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off’.” [11]

Pacey explains that there may understandably be reluctance on the part of some women to show vulnerability in a professional context as they may feel concerned about “falling into old stereotypes.” [8] Vanessa Loder, co-founder of Mindfulness Based Achievement, echoes this notion, describing the pressures of keeping a tight lid on her emotions in the run-up to a review with a male boss. “When I worked in finance, especially on Wall Street, I never wanted to be ‘that woman’, you know, the one who cries during her review,” she writes. “I would clench my fists under the table and take a deep breath trying to avoid any emotional reactions. I was concerned that it diminished my power or caused him to view me as some irrational, emotional mess.” [12]

Expressing vulnerability can make the seemingly mighty more relatable Expressing vulnerability can make the seemingly mighty more relatable
Bobby Giggz, Creative Commons (2015) ©

Cashing in on emotions
The notion of vulnerability and the call for greater wellbeing has not gone unnoticed by the commercial world. The $3.4 trillion wellness sector has been especially quick to pick up on the economy of moods and feelings, and it’s hard to miss the growth of mindfulness sites and apps such as Headspace[13] Critics, however, believe that these services can detract from the real issues surrounding mental health, offering a ‘snack-sized’ solution to emotional wellbeing. [14]

The beauty sector is also an evolving arena for health and wellness fads. Antioxidant minerals such as magnesium that help to eliminate factors that trigger stress and promote relaxation are increasingly being integrated into skin and body care offerings. For example, magnesium products such as Better You and melatonin-based skin care products have made their way on to the market; melatonin is known as the ‘sleep drug’ and is not widely available without prescription outside of US due to strict licensing regulations in other markets. [15]

While health and beauty box subscriptions have been around for a few years, niche offerings are emerging into emotional territory too. Blurt has designed the BuddyBox, which contains a monthly rotation of five ‘hug in a box’ items to help individuals de-stress, while Yogi Surprise offers a yoga inspired-wellness box in a similar vein. On the technological front, there are a number of new stress reduction aids such as Kokoon’s noise cancelling headphones with EEG sleep monitoring capabilities, which were being prototyped in July 2016. [16] Meanwhile. light box therapy devices to treat seasonal affective disorder have become available for at-home usage. [17]

Why do Sad Girls celebrate the ‘cry face’? Why do Sad Girls celebrate the ‘cry face’?
Dolls Kill (2015) ©

The sadness aesthetic
While few would admit to actually wanting to be sad, a tribe of Gen Y women are exploring sadness through art and social media. The ‘Sad Girls’ phenomenon includes female groups like the Cybertwee Manifesto and artists such as Audrey Wollen; they align themselves with modern feminism and use their tears as a form of ‘political resistance’ towards objectification. [18] The principle is to challenge the ‘fun girl’ archetype often fronting female empowerment movements. Critics, however, say Sad Girls is narcissistic and exists to purport a particular and somewhat dangerous aesthetic of beauty as young, white and thin.

Speaking in support of the movement, and of the pressure of conforming to neo-feminist standards, Audrey Wollen says: “If we don’t feel overjoyed about being a girl, we are failing at our own empowerment, when the voices that are demanding that joy are the same ones participating in our subordination. Feminism doesn’t need to advocate for how awesome and fun being a girl is. Feminism needs to acknowledge that being a girl in the world right now is one of the hardest things there is – it is unimaginably painful – and that our pain doesn’t need to be discarded in the name of empowerment.” [19]

Feminism needs to acknowledge that being a girl in the world right now is one of the hardest things there is and that our pain doesn’t need to be discarded in the name of empowerment

Audrey Wollen, artist

Artist Dora Moutot launched a Tumblr project in 2015 entitled Webcam Tears, which involves people uploading videos of themselves crying to the website. Moutot’s aim is to normalise sadness and crying, while contributing to what she describes as a ‘girly net art’ feminism. [20] In 2014, Homeland actress Claire Danes spoke about accepting her ‘cry face’ after a Tumblr project entitled ‘The Claire Danes Cry Face Project’ was launched – a ‘look’ which the actress has referred to as ‘objectified’. Memes like this are popping up all over the internet and a YouTube upload of reality star Kim Kardashian’s ‘best crying moments’ has had over two million views.

Although the internet is a powerful vehicle for expressing artful emotion, the notion of sadness as an aesthetic is not new within popular culture or society. Marilyn Monroe reflected an era of silver screen sad girls; their personal lives were as complex and sorrowful as their on-screen characters – a case of art imitating reality. So should brands endorse this sadness aesthetic or promote happiness? Perhaps they would be better off focusing on making authentic connections by understanding the contextual role and relevance of vulnerability.

Modern feminists are finding an outlet in misery Modern feminists are finding an outlet in misery
Ada Rajkovic (2014) ©

Insights and opportunities
Brands have historically traded on emotional currency to communicate with audiences. From Coke’s 1971 ‘Hilltop’ commercial that taught the world to ‘sing in perfect harmony’, to John Lewis’ Christmas ads, marketers are taskmasters at stirring emotions. But the aspiration is almost always to create happiness, nostalgia and hope – for surely no-one likes being unhappy?

The experience economy is fuelling a craving for deeper fulfilment, signalling a departure from happiness as the main hero. The children’s movie Inside Out depicts emotions as characters, with Sadness, Joy, Anger, Disgust and Fear among them. While seeking joy is an ultimate quest for most, “the film shows that sadness is an important part of understanding happiness,” explains Pacey. [8]

Earlier in 2016, Japanese skin care brand SK-II broached the topic of China’s controversial sheng nu (‘leftover women’) phenomenon with its ’Marriage Market Takeover' ad. The reality of life for single women approaching their 30s in Asia is often a tangled and pained web of cultural shame. The advert features the stories of real women and their parents, who are depicted to have pinned their hopes to ‘marrying off’ daughters to avoid them falling into the ‘shameful’ sheng nu territory. Although there is a positive turnaround towards the end of the film, it doesn’t shy away from exploring the sadness, shame and vulnerability expressed by the women.

We’ve noticed a shift from emailing and private messaging to talking about depression publicly; it’s a big shift from struggling alone

Jayne Hardy, founder of The Blurt Foundation

Even amid the conflict in the world that’s magnified by mass media coverage, messages of positivity are in abundance both online and offline. Yet a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology revealed that idealising events is counterproductive as it requires excessive energy and doesn’t necessarily yield positive results, whereas positivity combined with‘realism’ resulted in more being accomplished. [21][22] Therefore, brands that can facilitate a safe space to talk about sorrow are being welcomed, but first there needs to be an acknowledgement of unhappiness.

Being able to understand and connect with male audiences is becoming increasingly important. “Younger men that I work with now are much more willing to talk about their feelings,” says Pacey, commenting on the shift in communicating with men. Similarly, the Sad Girl movement signals that some young girls might not feel empowered by overt examples of ‘positive’ feminism and are seeking other ways to express to themselves. But some fear the rise of sad culture. “Mental illness, sadness, tragedy, loss; these are not aesthetic values,” writes Camilla Ackley for Into The Fold. “These are real problems faced by real people. Why is generation Y degrading them?” [23]

Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton serve as examples that softer emotions can ‘humanise’ people in power. Adding to this, 71% of employers surveyed by CareerBuilder said that they rank emotional intelligence over IQ. [24] This feeds into the wider discussion about the value of acknowledging vulnerability in professional contexts, particularly as many people may feel uncomfortable expressing their sadness in the office. “We live in a time when we are so connected that it’s shameful to feel lonely,” says Pacey. “And an awful lot of people do feel lonely, but may not feel able to admit it.” [8]

Shabana Ebrahem is a culture and trends consultant with ten years’ experience spanning the global consumer lifestyle sector. She works extensively across the premium, luxury, beauty and retail industries.

1. 'Overweight and obesity in Asia', Gen Re (December 2014)
2. 'The power of vulnerability', TED (June 2010)
3. 'Emotional intelligence & employment', Centre for Creative Leadership (February 2016)
4. 'Landmark moment as antidepressant prescriptions top 50 million', Mind (July 2013)
5. 'Key data: mental health', Men’s Health Forum (June 2016)
6. Interview with Jayne Hardy conducted by author
7. 'People are using the hashtag #WhatYouDontSee to show what depression is really like', BuzzFeed (April 2016)
8. Interview with Nigel Pacey conducted by author
9. '8 times President Obama cried while in public', Independent Journal Review (January 2016)
10. 'SHERYL SANDBERG: It's OK for women to cry at work', Business Insider (May 2013)
11. 'Hillary Clinton', Humans of New York (2016)
12. 'What 15 female leaders really think about crying at work', The Huffington Post (May 2014)
13. 'Global Wellness Institute study: $3.4 trillion global wellness market is now three times larger than worldwide pharmaceutical industry', Global Wellness Institute (September 2014)
14. 'Mindfulness: the saddest trend of 2015', The Telegraph (January 2015)
15. 'Melatonin is not just for sleep', Pure Radiance
16. 'The ultimate sleep sanctuary: Kokoon EEG headphone', Kickstarter (May 2015)
17. 'Recommended manufacturers', SAD.org.uk
18. 'A taxonomy of the sad girl', i-D (June 2015)
19. 'How girls are finding empowerment through being sad online', Dazed (November 2015)
20. 'This artist crowdsources videos of people crying on webcam', Dazed (November 2015)
21. 'Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy', Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (July 2011)
22. 'The problem with positive thinking', The New York Times (October 2014)
23. 'The problem with sad girl culture', Into The Fold (July 2015)
24. 'Seventy-one percent of employers say they value emotional intelligence over IQ, according to CareerBuilder survey', CareerBuilder (August 2011)