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The Difference Between Sadness and Depression (and How They Affect Your Creativity)

Depression is not uncommon. In fact, it’s estimated that 16.2 million American adults suffer at least one major depressive episode in any given year. And yet, depression is still misunderstood by many people. The most common misunderstanding is that depression is really just intense or lasting sadness. But unfortunately, that doesn’t adequately describe what depression is and why it is so damaging to so many people, including creatives. In this post, I want to discuss the difference between sadness and depression, along with how each can affect your creativity.

Keep in mind that while certain things are usually true concerning this topic, sadness and depression can manifest differently in different people. If you are struggling to feel happiness, or you feel like something is “off,” talk to your doctor or therapist. If you have thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

The difference between sadness and depression


Sadness is normal. When something hard happens—like a loss, disappointment, discouragement, etc., it is only natural that you would feel sad. 

Sadness is usually tied to an event, thought, or some other stimulus. Because of this, sadness is generally seen as something temporary that fades on its own, over time. Sadness can come and go, and can show up in varying degrees of intensity. It may feel all-consuming, but it is usually broken up by happier, more positive moments.

Additionally, people dealing with sadness can usually continue to live their lives normally or almost normally, either throughout the sad episode or soon after it. Sadness does not usually disrupt your daily life in any profound or lasting way. 

All that said, I don’t want to downplay how horrible sadness can feel, or how hard it can be to go through. Some sadness can feel very powerful, maybe even hindering you from living your life the way you want to. Still, even these symptoms do not necessarily mean that you are depressed. 


Depression is common, but it is not normal. It is a clinical condition—a mental illness—that is often much longer-lasting than sadness. Not only that, but depression is also associated with a noticeable decline in quality of life and life satisfaction. For instance, it can have a negative impact on your social life, your professional performance, your self esteem, your close relationships, and so on. 

Sometimes, depression is “situational,” meaning it can be brought on by a specific situation. But not always. Many people who suffer from depression are unable to tie their depression to a specific circumstance or event. 

Also, depression usually brings with it a number of other symptoms, including (but not limited to):

  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping (or sleeping too much)
  • Noticeable loss or increase in appetite
  • Anger/irritability
  • Headaches or other inexplicable body pains
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

The important thing to remember about depression is that it is an illness, and it should be treated like one. It is crucial to work with a doctor or mental health professional to make sure you are getting proper treatment for your depression. Just as you would take medicine for a cold, or disinfect and treat a wound, you should also take steps to manage your depression.

How to know if you are feeling sad or depressed

Undoubtedly, there is some overlap between sadness and depression. Some people who are feeling sad say that they are feeling “depressed,” and people who are depressed might describe themselves as being “sad all the time.” You might mistake sadness for depression, or you might write off your depression as sadness. The problem is, not being able to distinguish between the two can have problematic consequences if it keeps you from getting the help you need.

The best way to determine if you are feeling sadness or depression is to talk to a professional. A mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychiatrist, is best, but your general practitioner can help, too. Remember: the most important thing is to get the help you need. 

There are also online screenings you can take, such as those from Mental Health America and Depression.org.

Here is a quick-reference chart that goes over the typical differences between sadness and depression, to help you decide what you’re feeling and how to get help.

-Temporary (usually hours or days, maybe weeks)
-Brought on by a specific event or circumstance
-Allows you to live life normally 
-Allows for feelings of happiness and positivity
-May come and go
-A normal part of life
-Fades on its own
-Not always tied to a specific event or circumstance
-Usually prohibits you from living life normally
-Accompanied by other symptoms such as fatigue and irritability
-A mental illness that requires treatment
-Can lead to suicidal thoughts or tendencies

How sadness and depression affect creativity

The effect of sadness and depression on creativity is an interesting one—mostly because there is data that suggests moments of sadness, and even lasting depression, can actually benefit your creativity.

Research has shown that people who are experiencing sadness may be more attentive. This can make them better at handling demanding situations, recalling past events, and accurately discerning reality from rumor. They are also more detail-oriented, and, surprisingly, less likely to make arithmetic mistakes.   

In short, sadness might increase focus and diligence—two important ingredients for successful creative work.

It’s also argued that sadness and depression make you more aware of your emotions, which you can then use to your benefit as you create. After all, emotions (even negative ones) fuel creativity.

That said, we can’t discount the effect of positive thinking on creativity as well. Positivity can bring:

  • Insight and inspiration
  • Optimism and vision
  • Hope and happiness
  • Joy and purpose

All of these things are just as important to the creative process.

In short, feeling sad or depressed doesn’t have to ruin or completely derail your creative efforts. However, learning to manage your negative feelings so that you also experience the positive ones is what is going to help you to be your most creative self. 

Getting help

So what can you do to pull yourself out of sadness and depression?

Pull yourself out of a sad mood by acknowledging the feeling and giving yourself what you need. This is usually something more temporary, in the moment, or related to your senses, such as:

  • Listening to an uplifting song
  • Recalling a happy memory
  • Taking a walk
  • Writing out your thoughts
  • Talking with a friend
  • Eating (it’s amazing what raised blood sugar can do!)
  • Taking a nap
  • Exercising
  • Spending time with loved ones
  • Doing an activity you love (gardening, reading, watching a movie, baking, etc.)

It’s important to listen to yourself about what you need in a sad moment. Taking care of yourself when you’re sad isn’t selfish—it’s healthy.

This is even more true when it comes to depression. Depression is an illness that is best treated by medical professionals. If you think you are dealing with depression, talk to your doctor or therapist as soon as possible. They will likely suggest one or more of the following:

  • Medication (sometimes, it’s the only way to change the chemistry affecting thoughts)
  • Therapy (potentially, including specialized therapy)
  • Methods to try on your own, such as meditation, revised diet, monitoring sleep, regular exercise, etc.
  • Again, if you have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

The difference between sadness and depression—and how each of them can affect your creativity—is important to understand. It is vital that, as a creative, you come to know yourself and your emotions. Only as you take care of yourself and help “create happy” in your life can you truly tap into your creative self and become the person you are meant to be. 

“Create happy” in your life with Design.org.

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