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Why @sosadtoday makes us happy / by Liz Pelly

"sext: i'm scared to talk to you." LOL. "resume: i don't want a job." Yes. "mood: clinging to the past." O-m-f-g. "hopeless but it's cool.” Retweet.

@Sosadtoday is a bizarrely addictive addition to the k-hole of “Weird Twitter” that often leads to such impassioned reactions. With 58,146 followers and counting, the account posts multiple times daily, often romanticizing everyday sadness in a way that is confounding and entertaining. Written from the anonymous perspective of a sad girl with bad luck, the account tweets candid feelings of tiny, relatable moments of sadness in a way that’s dark but light and distinctly and hilariously hopeless: failed sexts, dudes who will never text you back, spending too much time alone with your cat, general emotional instability. @Sosadtoday tweeted 25 times yesterday and 108 times so far this week, including such gems as “learning to handle emotions in a positive way jk” and “inner peace jk.” The account is followed and retweeted by the likes of Miley Cyrus, Sky Ferreira, and Best Coast, but mostly just Tumblr-addicted teen girls. Since late 2013, it’s been inescapably retweeted into my Twitter stream every day.

Flipping through @sosadtoday recalls a particular feeling, similar to the feeling you get when you listen to a string of sad songs, and they’re crushing and cringe-y but for whatever reason you just can’t stop letting them play. But it also feels weirdly more desperate and real in its pervasiveness and its way of picking apart subconscious feelings about typically overlooked minutiae of highly mediated digital interactions. “girl snapchats boy boy ignores it,” the account tweeted this week. “girl texts boy boy gets text boy doesn't respond girl eats a lot of food,” immediately followed.

When I first found @sosadtoday, I wasn’t surprised. The culture of “sad girls” seemed everywhere on Tumblr last year: see the “#Sad Girls Club” Tumblr tag, or the online magazine “Sad Girls Guide.” Most recently, I stumbled upon a Tumblr post soliciting submissions for a zine called “Sad Selfies” (“a zine about sharing vulnerability”). At some point in 2013, it seemed like being sad had become more visibly “cool” online, and @sosadtoday’s tweets in my feed were daily reminders.

“I’ve always been into things like Gilmore Girls or Hole that depict girls being bummed out but honest about the fact that they’re bummed out,” said Tatyahna Cameron, the 22-year-old from San Francisco who started the Sad Girls Guide website in February 2013. “I like that type of honesty. I think that’s why people are so hyped off these kind of ‘sad’ vibes lately, because it’s honest and relatable … in the grand scheme of things, you are just dealing with things that everyone is dealing with and that’s a funny thing.”

With @sosadtoday, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted. Was it weird to derive such blatant joy out of satirical sadness? Was it healthy to be laughing off sadness like this? Or was I romanticizing my own sadness instead of confronting it? Why was @sosadtoday making me so happy?

“It is very clear that confronting suffering can be cathartic,” Florida State University professor Darrin McMahon, told me, when I explained @sosadtoday. McMahon is the author of Happiness: A History and has spent years researching and writing on society’s evolving relationship with happiness versus sadness. “Catharsis is a Greek word, and it’s their subtle idea of what happens when you watch a tragedy unfold,” he said. “Viewing other people’s pain can feel good. It makes you feel less alone, less isolated, and more human.”

Sadness is often approached like a disease or an outward mark of failure, especially in our culture that’s focused so fixed on stereotypical notions of happiness. To an extent, the “sad culture” of Twitter and Tumblr that @sosadtoday represents is helpful in removing the stigma from sadness – one that’s hasn’t always historically existed. “The recognition that other people feel the way you do is so powerful,” said McMahon. “And to realize that other people face similar problems can be so liberating.”

Our cultural obsession with happiness is actually quite new. I came across Professor McMahon’s work in a New York Times article titled “Even if You Can’t Buy It, Happiness Is Big Business,” documenting the 2008 "Happiness and Its Causes" conference, which at the time was reflective of the booming “happiness industry,” an intersection of academia and psychology that has risen over the past several years, leading to a surge of books, research papers, and new academic courses. That conference itself cost $545.

“You look at Facebook or any magazine or TV show today and you’re constantly bombarded with images of smiling people,” McMahon explained. “Hundreds of years ago if you looked at photographs of your grandparents they wouldn’t always be smiling, because of long exposure lenses, but also because there wasn’t the same cultural expectation of having to constantly present oneself as happy.”

McMahon says that advertising culture has impacted our relationship with happiness – that the sight of shiny, smiling faces selling visits to Disney world and bottles of Coke has led us to see happiness as insincere. “There’s a tendency to associate happiness with annoying upbeat shallow people,” he said. “But genuine happiness is about a lot more than just feeling good.”

In reality, cultures that confront the more morbid and unsettling aspects of life, like death, tend to be happier, explained McMahon. For example, Brazilian culture confronts death and the dead, yet we also associate Brazilian culture with tremendous joy. “There’s a recognition within their culture that suffering can go hand in hand with happiness,” McMahon said. According to a 2007 study in Psychological Science, people who think about their own death tend to become happier. The study explained this as a sort of psychological immune response: when we start thinking about our own death, our brains quickly cope by automatically triggering happy feelings. It’s a sort of defense mechanism believed to protect us from permanent depression.

So for those who are not actually suffering from legitimate depression, confronting the reality of sadness can actually protect us from unbearable sadness in the future. But it’s risky.

“There can be a danger of romanticizing suffering, making it cool and hip,” said McMahon. “A culture that is too quick to embrace misery as a natural and desirable state can be limiting. And sadness can become a cop out for not changing one’s world … Some people exist in real emotional pain that they don’t choose. You don’t want to make light of that.”

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