The first two questions on the Burns Depression Checklist ask about (1) Feeling Sad and (2) Feeling Unhappy. Specifically, they ask how much you have experienced:

  1. Feeling sad or down in the dumps
  2. Feeling unhappy or blue

What is the difference between these two questions?


  • The BDC is from the book Feeling Good, by David Burns.

It is common for psychological tests to include multiple items with similar meaning. These items are then combined to form an overall scale score (e.g., depression or depressed thoughts). Multiple items with a similar meaning are used to increase the reliability of measurement, which is also important for validity.

I don't think there is a huge difference in meaning between the two items, and presumably they are highly correlated. However, they may provide slightly different connotations to different people. Thus, by having multiple items, the scale may have improved reliability.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you know of any rules of thumb (or research) about the relationship between correlated items and scale reliability? I.e., how much reliability would having, say, two items correlated at 0.12 add as opposed to two items correlated at 0.36? $\endgroup$ – Krysta Dec 3 '14 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ Spearman-brown prophecy provides some guidance about the expected increase in reliability. You can also perform an item analysis on the scale to check features like "alpha if item deleted". $\endgroup$ – Jeromy Anglim Dec 3 '14 at 23:15

I think that there is some difference, at least to me.

All emotions are results of thoughts.

Sadness is most likely a result of negative thoughts about past or future (and, therefore, disconnecting from present moment).

"Feeling unhappy" is often misunderstood, because people often mistake true happiness for external stimulation/excitement. So I think what people are experiencing, when they say they're feeling blue, is simple lack of excitement. It doesn't have much in common with happiness (which is almost the opposite - it comes from the inside and is permanent).

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to cogsci.SE! We are a science-based group, and generally expect answers based in research, not just experience or philosophizing; you may find this question helpful for community standards on good answers (meta.cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/122/…). $\endgroup$ – Krysta Dec 4 '14 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Krysta thank you for your suggestion. I don't believe this question can be answered using any kind of research, as it is opinion-based in the first place. It's asking to differentiate between interpretations of two emotions, which is subjective. $\endgroup$ – Oleksiy Dec 4 '14 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ I tend to agree that the difference is primarily in the kinds of thoughts and attitudes evoked by these states. Being unhappy colors ordinary experiences in negative light (ex: "what a crappy food is available in the cafeteria", "this product is defective", "customer service is awful"). $\endgroup$ – Alex Stone Dec 5 '14 at 0:39

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