Aquinas’ Advice for Sorrow and Anxiety

By Matt Fradd

Matt Fradd is the creator and host of the Pints With Aquinas podcast. He is the author and coauthor of several books including How to Be Happy: Saint Thomas' Secret to the Good Life.


Matt Fradd, How to Be Happy, sorrow and anxiety

No matter how good we have it, no matter how wealthy we are, or how many good friends we have, or even how holy we are, all of us will experience sorrow in this life. A couple of years into my marriage when my wife, newborn child, and I were living in Ireland, I experienced a great deal of sorrow. I was never diagnosed as having depression, but the symptoms were similar to what other depressed people experience. 

Sometimes it felt like I had a mournful weight hanging around my neck. For many people, the sorrows we experience in this life can feel so overwhelming that we think we might break. Fortunately, St. Thomas Aquinas has several excellent insights into what causes sorrow and what we can do to endure it on our path back to the joy God ultimately desires for us. 

Aquinas, following St. John Damascene, lists four species of sorrow: anxiety, torpor, pity, and envy. We’ve already covered envy in our discussion of capital sins, so let’s focus on the other three sources of sorrow and how Aquinas says we can overcome them. 

Pity is the sorrow we feel at another person’s misfortune. Even if something bad doesn’t happen to us, we can still feel sad because we empathize with the person who is suffering. If they are a friend or family member, the pain can be much more intense because we find it easier to “be in their shoes.” Pity isn’t a bad thing if it moves us to compassion, but it can be bad if it leads us to find our happiness in other people’s misfortune (what the Germans call Schadenfreude) or despairing for others and thinking they are beyond any hope for salvation in either this life or the next. 

When it comes to anxiety, Aquinas quotes Damascene, who summarizes the essence of it well: “the dreaded evil gives rise to fear, the present evil is the cause of sorrow.” When we worry about the bad thing that might happen to us in life, we feel afraid, but when the bad thing hits us like a ton of bricks, it is then that we feel profound sadness, or sorrow. 

About one-third of people struggle with constant anxiety. It can be a breeding ground for fear because we increasingly feel “boxed in” or trapped by threats or hardships in this life. On the other hand, anxiety can bring us sorrow as we mourn the existential cage of worry that has taken away our joy. Aquinas describes anxiety, therefore, as that “which weighs on the mind, so as to make escape seem impossible.” 

Finally, Aquinas uses a word you might not have heard before but almost certainly have felt: torpor. He writes that you feel torpor “if . . . the mind be weighed down so much, that even the limbs become motionless.”3 Torpor is a kind of sluggishness we feel when we’re sad. While anxiety makes our nervous minds feel like a pinball machine, torpor turns them into the ruminations of a tree sloth that seems to take forever to move. Sadness in this case makes us tired, lethargic, and not willing to want to do anything in life because we ask, “What’s the point?” 

Aquinas says that “sorrow is a kind of flight or withdrawal, while pleasure is a kind of pursuit or approach; just as pleasure regards first the good possessed, as its proper object, so sorrow regards the evil that is present.”4 In order to counteract these sorrows, Aquinas recommends five treatments that keep us from destructively turning inward and reorient us to some good we can pursue that leads to relief and eventually a return to happiness. Specifically, Aquinas recommends pleasure, tears, friends, contemplation, and my favorites: sleep and baths.  

Let’s take a look at what Aquinas means by pleasure.  

I know it sounds kind of obvious, but if you are enduring some hardship and you feel really sad, pleasure or feeling good can be suitable remedy. Aquinas says, “Pleasure is a kind of repose of the appetite in a suitable good; while sorrow arises from something unsuited to the appetite. Consequently in movements of the appetite pleasure is to sorrow, what, in bodies, repose is to weariness.” 

In other words, sometimes our sadness can be rooted in a thirst for pleasure. Just as sleep is the antidote to fatigue, pleasure can be the antidote to sorrow. In many cases, we’ve poured ourselves too much into work, school, family, and even religious observances and not left anything for leisure. The twentieth-century Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a great book on leisure where he said, “Leisure is only possible when we are at one with ourselves. Possession of the beloved, St. Thomas holds, takes place in an act of cognition, in seeing, in intuition, in contemplation.”  

Now, Aquinas is not saying you should become a flaming hedonist who washes away his sorrows with whatever you find in Vegas and think will stay in Vegas. We must make a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate pleasures, or pleasures that give us repose and refreshment from sorrow by invigorating our souls and pleasures that just distract us in life and end up making us feel worse. 

We’ve all had the experience, perhaps, of getting something unhealthy to eat, falling onto the couch, and spending hours on end watching mindless entertainment. It may be distracting for a while, but when you’re done, would you say you feel really refreshed? Or, to provide another example, scrolling through your Facebook feed or your Twitter feed for twenty minutes isn’t going to restore you. That’s just the digital equivalent of raiding the snack pantry. 

So, what are some things you can engage in that can give you legitimate pleasure? For me, it would be going on a date night with my wife. It would be spending some time in silence, reading. For you, it might be different, and Aquinas admits that pleasure depends “on the part of the disposition of the subject, [so] any sorrow can be assuaged by any pleasure.” Once again, this isn’t a license to do whatever you want, but permission to indulge in the unique, legitimate goods that make you happy, even if they aren’t everyone else’s cup of tea. 

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What brings us real and lasting happiness? In How to Be Happy, author Matt Fradd relies on the help of St. Thomas Aquinas to show what will—and what won’t—bring us happiness in this life.