Sadness and Depression: Learning to Recognise the Differences


We all feel sad from time to time, but what if what you’re experiencing is something more than sadness? Feeling sad and feeling depressed can often overlap in terms of sensation and experience. However, while they might share certain similarities, there is a vast difference between sadness and depression.

Recognising the differences between sadness and depression can make it easier for us to process our feelings and, in certain cases, could help to save someone’s life. Read on to learn how to identify the key differences between depression and sadness.

What is Sadness?

Sadness is a normal emotion that all human beings feel from time to time in response to an event or situation that causes them physical or emotional pain. These events can relate to a person’s career, financial situation, home life, and personal relationships. Most commonly, feelings of sadness can be connected to one or more events that act as specific triggers.

When a person feels sad, it might feel overwhelming, but it is a temporary emotional state. Someone who feels sad can still find enjoyment in life while feeling sad, whether it’s from listening to a favourite song or visiting with a loved one. They also still have the energy and willingness to continue living their life normally, going to work, and honouring commitments.

Sadness also usually resolves on its own without the need for an intervention. People dealing with sadness usually experience some emotional relief through coping mechanisms like crying, exercising, spending some time alone, or relying on the support of family and friends.

What is Depression?

Depression, also known as major depressive disorder (MDD), is a mental illness characterised by a persistently depressed mood and a lack of interest in life in general, which causes significant impairment to the person’s daily life. Common symptoms of MDD include:

  • A persistent feeling of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness.
  • Feelings of irritability, pessimism, and negativity.
  • Feelings of excessive, inappropriate guilt or shame.
  • A loss of interest in hobbies or interests previously enjoyed.
  • Difficulty falling asleep or sleeping more than usual.
  • A general lack of energy and exhaustion.
  • Unintentional weight loss or weight gain.
  • Difficulty focusing, remembering things, and making decisions.
  • Recurring thoughts of death and suicide, or suicide plans or attempts.

Someone experiencing at least five or more of these symptoms for more than two weeks may be suffering from MDD. They may withdraw from friends and family, stop going to work or school, and may also display physical symptoms of a depressive disorder. Their feelings of sadness, anger, irritability, and hopelessness do not disappear over time, and they may lose interest in all aspects of life.

It’s important to understand that someone suffering from major depressive disorder cannot be expected to simply “get over it” or cheer up. Depression is not an emotional state; it is a mental illness and requires specific treatment in the form of therapy, medication, or both, as recommended by a licensed doctor or mental health professional.

Am I Depressed or Just Sad?

It can be difficult at times to determine if what we’re feeling is sadness or depression, especially if we feel intense, overwhelming sadness. As similar as the experiences might feel, there are several key differences to keep in mind:

  • Sadness is an emotion; depression is a mental illness.
  • Sadness is temporary; major depressive disorder usually persists.
  • Sadness tends to resolve on its own; depression requires intervention and treatment.
  • Sadness is often a reaction to something. A depressive disorder can also be reactive but does not require any pre-existing situations or triggers to manifest.
  • Sadness does not significantly impair or interrupt a person’s ability to live their life; depression does.


If you are experiencing intense sadness, or are worried you might be suffering from major depressive disorder, it’s important to monitor your feelings and behaviours for possible warning signs. If you feel persistently sad for more than two weeks or are displaying some of the symptoms of MDD, reach out and speak to your doctor or to a mental health professional who can screen you for depression, and make recommendations.

Are you ready to conquer your feelings of depression? Take a look at our practical, evidence-based and online course for depression here.