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Is it possible to feel happy and sad at the same time?

Mixed emotions can feel strange, but they're not unusual, psychologists say. May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
There might be a lesson in feeling both happy and sad.
There might be a lesson in feeling both happy and sad.Shutterstock
/ Source: TODAY

“I am both happy and sad at the same time, and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be” — “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

Talk about mixed emotions. A happy-sad state can be as perplexing to people as to psychologists.

This is not about “smiling depression,” where someone feels emotional pain, but masks those feelings with a happy façade. Rather, it’s truly experiencing those two conflicting emotions at once.

Khloe Kardashian recently tweeted about going through it when her baby reached a milestone.

Is it possible to feel happy and sad at the same time?

Jeff Larsen, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has been trying to answer that question for almost 20 years.

“We certainly have a whole bunch of evidence that it is possible,” Larsen told TODAY. “Typically, the emotional landscape is laid out in such a way that we’re feeling one or the other, or neither. There are places where we can feel both, and those places are few and far between, but they’re interesting.”

When he simply asks people if it’s possible to feel such mixed emotions, most people immediately say “yes,” he noted, showing how universal the experience is.

But Larsen takes a more scientific approach. In his experiments, he’s asked people to watch a clip from a bittersweet movie — “Life is Beautiful,” starring Roberto Benigni, to be exact — and press one button if they felt happy, another button if they felt sad, or both buttons at the same time if they felt both emotions at once. It turned out about half pressed both happy and sad buttons at once, though not for very long.

Larsen believes the experience is rare, but possible. In other words, we usually don’t feel happy and sad at the same time, but we can feel that way.

Yale University psychology professor Laurie Santos, who is teaching an extraordinarily popular course on how to be happy, agreed it’s possible for people to feel both positive and negative emotions at once.

“This is one of the reasons that most scientific scales for emotion include a separate dimension for positive emotion and negative emotion — they're not a continuum,” Santos said.

When does it happen?

Scenarios that often trigger a happy-sad state include bittersweet events like graduations or a move to a new city for a job — situations when you’re sad about leaving, but happy about new opportunities, she noted. Endings that are also beginnings make these “emotionally-rich” events, Larsen added.

Another common scenario is the death a loved one, typically a grandparent, who has passed away after a good, long life — especially if the person was suffering and you think a better life awaits in the world beyond, he said.

Our mind has the range to feel both happy and sad at the same time to help us adapt, psychologists believe.

“Human beings have the most sophisticated minds in the history of the planet and we have these complex minds, in part, because we live in a complex world,” Larsen said.

“Much as we might like stimuli and events to come at us one at a time, that’s not how the world works. Maybe you get good news and bad news within the space of a minute.”

He cited the example of a man whose daughter survived a plane crash, but whose wife died in the same disaster in 2009.

If you are feeling happy and sad at the same time...

  • “The first thing would be to just say is that it may not be unusual — it may make sense. It may not be a bad thing. It may be a sign,” Larsen said.
  • Ask yourself why you feel this way. There might be a lesson in the experience, Larsen said. Work through your emotions; don’t just push them away.
  • Sadness is often thought to be a sign that you need to step back, take stock, see where you’ve been and see where you should be going, Larsen said. When one chapter in life has ended and another is beginning, that can be a really good idea, he noted. It doesn’t take anything away from the joy and pride of the accomplishment.

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