Helen Russell is an author and journalist who, after 8 years of researching happiness, has written the brilliant book, ‘How To Be Sad’. It turns out that to be happy, you have to allow yourself to feel sad: ‘No rain, no flowers’ is a cliche for a reason ! Helen spoke to Steph on the Don’t Buy Her Flowers Podcast this week, and put together a selection of products to accompany her book. She was also kind enough to lend us some of her thoughts in this Q&A.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I’m a journalist, podcaster, author, and accidental happiness researcher.

I started researching happiness in 2013 when I relocated from the UK to Denmark. I’d spent 12 years living and working in London as editor of marieclaire.co.uk, and I had no intention of leaving, until out of the blue one wet Wednesday, my husband came home and told me he’d been offered his dream job …working for Lego in rural Jutland. I was sceptical to start with – I had a good career, a flat, friends, family – I had a life. Okay, so my husband and I both worked long hours, we were tired all the time, never seemed to be able to see each other very much and we’d both been ill on and off for the past six months. But that was normal, right?

We thought we were ‘living the dream’. I was 33 years’ old and we’d also been trying for a baby, enduring years of fertility treatment, but we were always so stressed that it never quite happened. So when my husband was offered a job in Denmark, this ‘other life’ possibility was dangled in front of us – the chance to swap everything we knew for the unknown. Denmark had just been voted the world’s happiest country in the world and I became fascinated by this. How had a tiny country of just 5.5m people managed to pull off the happiest nation on earth title? And if I couldn’t get happier in Denmark, where could I get happier?

I decided I would give it a year, investigating the Danish happiness phenomenon first hand – looking at a different area of living each month to find out what Danes did differently. From food to family life; work culture to working out; and design to the Danish welfare state – each month I would throw myself into living ‘Danishly’ to see if it made me any happier and if I could change the way I lived as a result. I decided I would interview as many Danes, expats, psychologists, scientists, economists, historians, sociologists, politicians, everyone in fact to try to uncover the secrets to living Danishly.

That once year experiment became a book – The Year of Living Danishly – and went on to be translated into 18 different languages. I started to hear from readers all over the world about the happiness secrets of other cultures. So I started to research unique happiness concepts from around the world, to write another book, The Atlas of Happiness. And from there, I started exploring different cultural approaches to emotions – and How To Be Sad was born.

How have you found the last two years?

Tough! There are friends and family in the UK I wasn’t able to see for two years. There have been times of great reckoning – without the noise and business of normality, we’ve been faced with the stark reality of our lives and the choices we’ve made in them. Re-evaluating work, relationships, friendships, habits – everything.

There have been wins – but they may not have felt like it at the time! Home-schooling allowed me to spend more time with the children I am delighted to say I now have. But it also turns out I’m a terrible home-school teacher (we all agree – unless it’s craft, I suck). And experiencing sadness and disappointments during lockdown has been lonely at times. But it’s reminded me about what matters. What’s important. Sadness does that – it’s a message that can tell us when something is wrong and what to do about it – but we have to listen.

Your book ‘How To Be Sad’ has just been published in paperback (congratulations!). Why did you want to write this book? What do you hope it will do for your readers? 

Having spent the past eight years researching into happiness worldwide, I began to notice that many of the people I met were so obsessed with the pursuit of happiness that they were phobic of feeling sad. I’d speak to people who had just lost loved ones who would ask how they could be happy. I’d meet people who’d recently been made redundant, or homeless, or had a bad break-up – who’d still ask: ‘So why aren’t I happy?’ I would try to explain that, sometimes, we need to be sad.

Sadness is what we’re supposed to feel after a loss and sorrow is the sane response when sad things happen. In a global pandemic, for instance: it’s okay to feel sad. But a lot of us are conditioned to be so averse to ‘negative emotions’ that we don’t even recognise them, much less acknowledge them or give ourselves permission to feel and process them. During my research I’ve become increasingly convinced that many of us have been sold a very narrow definition of ‘happiness’ – a definition that means never being sad or doing hard things. A definition that does all of us a disservice. So I wanted to address this.

I hope it will help remind readers that a good life is about feeling all the feelings. Studies show that if we aim to avoid sadness, even a little, we limit our existence and put ourselves at greater risk of normal sadness tipping over into something more serious. And there are actually some benefits to being sad. Researchers from the University of New South Wales have found that accepting and allowing for temporary sadness helps improve our attention to detail, increases perseverance, promotes generosity and makes us more grateful for what we’ve got. Sadness also helps us to be more clear eyed – less likely to fall for The Halo effect (whereby we think the rich and beautiful, usually, can do no wrong) or the fundamental attribution error (where we become defensive and assume the worst of everyone). We’re nicer, kinder, more empathetic people when we’re sad. So although we don’t want to be sad all the time, it certainly has a purpose. Sadness is an emotion that helps us ruminate, work things through, and connects us.

If you were only allowed to give your readers one piece of advice about being sad, what would it be?

Don’t fight it! Trying to avoid sadness is like pushing a beach ball underwater – it’s going to pop up somewhere. Sadness is going to happen, so we might as well know how to ‘do it’ right.

What is the best gift someone has ever bought for you, or the most thoughtful thing someone has ever done for you?

My (and Steph’s!) friend Emily is a total gem and when I first moved to Denmark and missed home terribly, she would bundle up magazines, chocolate – sometimes gin – from the motherland and send me a care package every month. Like a prototype DBHF package. It meant a lot and helped get me through tough times.

What makes you laugh? 

My friends, my kids, a good pun, dogs falling over, skidding on banana skins, back of the toilet door jokes….a lot, actually. Laughter lines = strong this end.

Words to live by? 

Learning how to be sad is key if we want to be truly happy.

You can find Helen’s book ‘How To Be Sad’ in our packages and Helen’s package selection The How To Be Sad Package.