Rosalind: They say you are a melancholy fellow.
Jaques: I am so: I do love it better than laughing.

Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

Melancholy is ambivalent and problematic. Although it seems at once a very familiar term, it is extraordinarily elusive and enigmatic. Pierrot, Hamlet and even Batman are all melancholic characters with traits like darkness, unrequited longing, genius or heroism. Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century abbess and mystic, believed it to have been formed at the moment Adam sinned in taking the apple – when melancholy “curdled his blood”.

Melancholy is a critical part of what it is to be human, yet everything from psychotropic drugs to self-help psychology seems intent on removing all signs of sadness from contemporary existence. Complex and contradictory, melancholy’s presence weaves through the history of both science and art.

The ancients believed that melancholy was a physiologically induced malady. These notions are rooted in the notion of ‘humours’. In Greek and Roman times humouralism was the foundation for an understanding of our temperament.The four humours were said to be:

1. Phlegm
2. Blood
3. Yellow bile
4. Black bile

An excess of these substances in turn induced the following temperaments:

1. Phlegmatic (unexcitable, unemotional)
2. Sanguine (optimistic, confident)
3. Choleric.(irascible, angry)
4. Melancholic (pensive, sad)

Despite their erroneous reasoning the ancients were on to something here. Melancholy is linked to temperament but is more likely to be influenced by genetics than the four ‘humours’.

The connection between melancholy and the intellect is a circular one. Sometimes melancholy has been seen to cause genius, and at others is seen as a consequence of it. This paradox was first raised by Aristotle (who perhaps gilding the lily somewhat, but yet with some justification) asked, “Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholic.” And it is still easy to compile a huge list drawn from our best poets, authors, artists, scientists and statesmen who were well-known melancholics.

As I mentioned before, melancholy is very contradictory. The Shakespearean quote above illustrates that. Melancholy underscores a lot of beauty. It often underpins catharsis. We enjoy sad music and seem to gain something uplifting from tragic literary works.
The complexities and contradictions of melancholy’s place within psychiatry and the aspiration towards a “cure” will continue to be in tension with melancholy’s association with genius, beauty and creativity. My concern is that the over-diagnosis of melancholia and the treatment of sadness will throw the baby out with the bathwater. Surely it is normal that all of us will experience sadness in our lives. It is true that some of us are more disposed to sadness and pessimism and therefore more vulnerable to plummeting into depression. And those who are very vulnerable should be cared for. But sadness is just part of the rich tapestry of life that most of us cope with.

One of my friends related to me that he was suffering from melancholy, even though his disposition is normally pretty sunny. I wrote the following for him which he said was helpful. I am sure he won’t mind your sharing it.

Even well-adjusted people will occasionally have to deal with periods of melancholy. This will be particularly true if you have to deal with unusual stress and may be aggravated if your disposition is naturally pessimistic. Just like people suffering from depression our melancholy is reinforced by an unhealthy focus on self and often reinforced by rumination. Here are some strategies for coping with melancholy. Maybe they won’t all work for you but some of them should help.

1. Pleasant Distractions
Sometimes it is helpful to do something enjoyable enough to provide a temporary respite from our negative thoughts. Perhaps you might go to a movie or a concert, have dinner with entertaining friends, play with your children, or whatever you have found energizing and distracting in the past.

2. Do Something for Someone Else
Because our melancholy is underpinned and reinforced by our own self-obsession, if we can get engaged in some way helping others our focus on self will diminish.

3. Avoid Rumination
Whilst it is true that stress and anxiety can be reduced by talking things over with others, this is only true if the dialogue is directed to developing options helpful in dealing with the issues that sufferer has. Sometimes conversations can go over and over the issues emphasising injustice and the distress being suffered. This is called rumination and exacerbates the problem. Research shows this is a greater problem for women than men.

4. Challenge Your Assumptions
This is a useful tool for the more rational of us and is the basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. We need to challenge our thinking about how bad things really are. Often it is helpful to ask ourselves, “Realistically, what it’s the worst that could happen?” Most times we find that we can live with the outcomes anticipated.

5. Roll Out Our Defences Against Pessimism
As Martin Seligman pointed out in Learned Optimism there is often a great difference in how we treat criticism by others and how we treat our self-criticism. When we are criticised by others we argue to ourselves that any deficiencies that might be highlighted are not:
• Personal (that is entirely due to my personal failings)
• Pervasive (that is not permeating every aspect of my life but constrained to a minor part of it) or
• Permanent (that the shortcomings so perceived are only temporary aberrations).
We need to adopt the same defensive strategies to our self-criticisms.

6. Accentuate The Positive
Take a little time to mull over the good things in your life, the things that are going well, and the fortunate circumstances that you experience and where you think your life has been particularly blessed.

7. Remember What You Find Uplifting
Can you remember reading something that you found particularly uplifting or inspiring? Revisit it. Do you know some music that you find stirring and emotionally engaging? Listen to it again.

8. Indulge In Some Positive Aphorisms
Most of us know a few quotes that seem to inspire and make a difference. Meditate a moment on these and they will put your issues in perspective.

For example:

“Fear less, hope more; Eat less, chew more; Whine less, breathe more; Talk less, say more; Love more, and all good things will be yours”
– Swedish Proverb

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
– Winston Churchill

“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”
– Herm Albright

“Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”
– Willie Nelson

“Positive anything is better than negative nothing.”
– Elbert Hubbard

“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”
– Henry Matisse

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we took so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened up for us”
– Helen Keller

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
– Dr Wayne Dyer

“Pessimist : A person who says that O is the last letter of ZERO, instead of the first letter in word OPPORTUNITY.”
– Anonymous

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

9. Still The Mind
If you are able to meditate do so, because this stills the mind, ceases the internal chatter and enables you to focus on emptiness rather than yourself.

10. Disassociate Yourself From The Mood
A trap for the unaware is to be engulfed by the mood of melancholy. Thoughts and emotions and moods come and go. You are not your moods! If you are aware you will understand you are the observer of your moods. With life experience you understand that like ripples on the streams and clouds in the sky moods appear and then disappear. To identify ourselves with something so ephemeral is a mistake. Who you really are is beyond moods and thoughts and ideas. You are the observer and not the observed. Be patient and aware and your equanimity will return!

In the end, remember this. We must forever confront dualism in the world. There is no light without darkness, there is no love without fear and there is no happiness without melancholy. When it comes be assured that you as a capable competent human being will outlast its dark pervasiveness. And when it is gone your happiness will be more worthwhile because of your endurance of your melancholy.

9 Replies to “Melancholy”

  1. I knew a man at a workplace who was always pleasant and happy. I greeted him cheerfully one morning and as usual, enquired about his well being. He said “oh I am a little sad today”. I was shocked and said I was sorry he was feeling that way. His response was “but for the shadows we would never know the sun was shining.” Since then I have always thought a little melancholia had a useful purpose.

  2. When I am feeling down or when someone else I know is feeling down I always say that it is just brain chemistry that has changed and when it changes back you/I will feel better. The best thing I find to speed up the process is to behave and do the things I normally do when I am feeling good. I have to force myself to do this but it is the quickest way out for me. A friend once called this, “fake it until you make it”.

    On the dualism angle my favourite quote is “There can be no mountains without valleys”. As long as your mountains aren’t too high and your valleys too low it adds to the spice and appreciation of life. I believe one of the goals of the happiness movement is to flatten the terrain of moods and then steadily lift it as a whole. Not sure I like this idea too much. A bit of melancholy now and then is not such a bad thing.

  3. “When the dog bites, when the bee stings,
    when I’m feeling bad,
    I simply remember my favorite things
    And then I don’t feel so sad.”

  4. Mind you, Julie’s and mine don’t match all that well.

    Never been fond of snow on my nose.
    Let alone blue satin sashes.

    I’ll stick with a good red and a decent book.
    With the phone off the hook.

  5. Many thanks Larry, Greg and Father Robin for your lovely comments. I appreciated them greatly.

  6. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

  7. Wow, I like this. Earlier today I was responding to a blog by John Kapeleris, and suggesting the value of fun/joy in fostering innovation. Now I look at the other side of that coin.

    I appreciate the comments you have made Ted. And I agree with Greg. Putting these together, I guess I see a place for melancholy (and quite enjoy occasionally dallying there), but also think that if it is in our power, it behooves us not to dwell there long – for the sake of ourselves, and for the sake of those we love and pass time with.


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