Melancholy is a state of being sad, gloomy, or even pensive. Many people consider melancholy a mild form of actual depression. People who just feel sad, perhaps with the inability to pinpoint exactly why, are said to be melancholy.
When there is something weighing on your mind, you can become quiet and withdrawn, preferring to be with your own thoughts in order to make some sense of what is going on. This may make others uncomfortable and feel that you have withdrawn from them, but there is an argument to be made that melancholy can sometimes be a healthy state during which a person reviews and comes to terms with their deepest thoughts and feelings in order to make plans and move ahead.
However, if the state of melancholy goes on for too long it can worsen into clinical depression. Melancholy should pass with time. It is important to recognize when melancholy is inhibiting your life rather than playing a role in your ability to move forward. When melancholy takes over, it is time to seek help for depression from a doctor because depression can be a very serious and sometimes life threatening condition.
The History and Definition of Melancholy
The short melancholy definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is simply a sad mood or feeling, or a pensive mood. Synonyms for melancholy include dismal, dreary and mournful.
But the longer definition is quite interesting and brings into it the history of melancholy, which dates back to ancient and medieval times.
The longer definition is: an abnormal state attributed to an excess of black bile and characterized by irascibility or depression. Black bile is a medieval a term and one of the four humors, as postulated by Hippocrates, of ancient Greek and medieval physiology. It was believed that black bile was secreted by the kidneys or spleen and caused melancholy. The four humors are intertwined in modern times with the four temperaments as discussed below.
We can also define melancholy based on the psychological definition in which it is generally described as a non-specific type of depression and is characterized by low energy levels and lack of enthusiasm. Melancholy is not an actual clinical diagnosis, but is today often classified with some degree of clinical depression. Again, if you suspect that your melancholic state is not improving and has moved into debilitating depression, it is time to talk to a medical professional and perhaps get some counseling to help you through. Melancholy can be handled on your own, depression cannot and should not be handled without help from a doctor or therapist.
Some research suggests that hormones play a role in creating melancholy. Specifically, corticotropin-releasing hormone, or CRH, may contribute to the how melancholy develops inour body. CRH is involved in our stress response and it is thought that the over-functioning of some CRH neurons in the body creates a deficiency in other substances that contribute to an elevated mood. The good hormones that lift our mood are somehow being blocked out and we enter into a state of melancholy. This of course points to a chemical imbalance in the body that is causing melancholy. It is possible that scientist will have a treatment for melancholy based on this theory but at this time there is no clinical treatment for melancholy.
But, what does melancholy mean in everyday life? First, let’s talk about the four basic temperaments of humans, including the Melancholy temperament.
The 4 Temperaments
A person’s temperament is not the same as their personality or their character. Your temperament consists of some inborn traits that contribute to the reasons you do what you do. Traits are different than personality types in that they are considered a part of person rather than some external grouping that the person fits into. Traits can also be exhibited in varying degrees ranging from strongly to barely at all. These traits make up a person’s temperament.
The ancient Greeks were the first to lay out the temperament model of human psychology. The physician Hippocrates used the four temperaments as the basis for his medical theories. And though modern medicine, through the use of biochemistry and other sciences, has largely abandoned the temperament model in medicine, there are several psychological models that use the four temperaments as a basis.
The four temperaments are:
The Choleric – This temperament is self-confident, independent, and strong-willed. Cholerics can be hot tempered and become easily annoyed yet they are very results oriented and fight for what they believe in. Usually unconcerned with what others think, they are direct and clear in their communications but can be hard to get to know deeply because of their focus on activity and results rather than relationships. The Choleric will likely be in a position of authority and will seem to have an endless supply of ideas and the energy to put them in motion.
The Sanguine – The Sanguine temperament is also an extrovert but with a little more fun and humor involved than the Choleric. Sanguines can be impulsive, smiling easily and talking to just about anyone. They are much more open and accepting of others than Cholerics and form relationships quickly. Many Sanguines intensely dislike solitude and will seek out activity and social situations, especially when bored, therefore, they usually have a large circle of friends. While they can be disorganized, they are also very competitive and love activities such as team sports. Sanguines are very focused on being accepted and do not tolerate rejection very well.
The Phlegmatic – The Phlegmatic is one of the introverted temperaments. This temperament is generally calm and easygoing and therefore usually quite easy to get along with. Their anxiety and stress levels tend to be low as they favor a calm and quiet existence. Tending to lay back and let things happen, the Phlegmatic is not usually a career go-getter. Phlgematics do not take well to change and will often remain in relationships, even if they are difficult, rather than make a change, thought they can often hold a grudge. Basically, they are conflict and change avoiders who can hide their true feelings behind their calm and stoic demeanor.
The Melancholy – This temperament is also introverted but also contains a logical and analytical trait. Melancholies will be slow to warm up, and slow and cautious to proceed in any endeavor, not trusting people or situations until their trust has been earned. They are often timid but tend to be self-sacrificing yet perfectionists. Unlike the Sanguine, the Melancholy is organized and makes great efforts to gather data and time to think before making any decisions. They are not risk-takers and need much reassurance and positive feedback. Melancholies are the people who say no to every new idea immediately, but can often warm up to it once they have had time to digest and think about it.
Though any of the four temperaments can become melancholy due to life events, there is a reason that one whole temperament is named The Melancholic. The traits in this temperament are closely mirrored in a state of melancholy. Specifically, the slow and cautious, pensive characteristics that can evolve into a more positive look over time.
The 4 Temperaments Test
There are many tests available for determining which of the four temperaments you fall into. The test are generally multiple choice and aim to measure the degree to which you have or often exhibit the traits that make up each of the temperaments. There is no right or wrong answer on any of the questions so when taking the tests it is best to contemplate your response and answer honestly about what you would do in the given situation or scenario.
Taking the four temperaments test with your friends or family can be a good way to gain some insight into the people in your life react innately to events and to others. Understanding why your partner is always on the go while you like to stay home can help both people to accept their differences and even to appreciate them.
If you are feeling melancholy it may be for a very good reason. Perhaps events in your life have caused you to pause and take a look at what is going on and how you feel about it. Melancholy can even be brought on by the weather such as a dark and gloomy day. Some say that melancholy is a renewal, that it plays a role making a person stronger and healthier.
The idea of melancholy has been around since the ancient Greeks and is not a new, modern-day label for something caused by our increasingly stressful lives. Melancholy is a human state and whether or not it is linked to chemicals in our body or events in our lives, it is important to acknowledge when we are feeling melancholy. More importantly, we should be aware of the ability of melancholy to lead to something more severe such as clinical depression.
If you feel you are more than just in a melancholy mood, or if your melancholy is not passing, be sure to talk to a doctor and get help dealing with your thoughts and feelings.