In praise of melancholy

The pursuit of happiness is a very curious goal that modern society has imprinted upon all of us. When asked what we desire most in the world, happiness, along with success, is perhaps at the top of the list. But we must ask ourselves – what does being happy mean to a group of people who have never experienced anything else? Not having anything to compare their normal state of being must surely be unrewarding – it is only after every one of them experiences sadness in one form or the other that would make them appreciate the state of being happy. So why is this seemingly unattainable goal sought after with single-minded devotion?

It is interesting that two of the most influential thinkers of the modern age – the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietszche – have felt that a certain amount of suffering is essential to the soul. It is not an accident that some of the most creative outputs of the past millenia have been a direct result of the feelings of melancholy. Van Gogh for instance once wrote in his diary about his experiences of mental anguish,

.. One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless ..

Experts today put forth the theory that his works may have been influenced by the pain he felt as a result of certain types of migraines and headaches.

Closer to the modern era, it is a well known fact that the most famous music compositions of the 2oth century have been odes to love – mostly written at a time when the participants of that particular relationship were at odds with each other, or were suffering the loss of their significant other to a host of things ranging from death to distance.

There is a theory that an NYU behavioral economics professor, Adam Alter, proposed a couple of years ago that ties in to this.

Sunshine dulls the mind to risk and thoughtfulness.

He has a very interesting explanation of this theory, which hinges on the fact that when our mood is dampened by bad weather, it turns us inwards and goads us to think more deeply and clearly. As he writes in his book “Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave”,

Humans are biologically predisposed to avoid sadness, and they respond to sad moods by seeking opportunities for mood repair and vigilantly protecting themselves against whatever might be making them sad. In contrast, happiness sends a signal that everything is fine, the environment doesn’t pose an imminent threat, and there’s no need to think deeply and carefully.

When we’re facing major emotional hurdles — extreme grief, an injury that brings severe pain, blinding anger — our emotional warning light glows red and compels us to act.

The next time a set of clouds come floating by and cast a gloomy shadow on an otherwise sunny day – both metaphorically and otherwise – we would do well to cast our thoughts inwards, and consider it but an opportunity to let our thoughts run deep and our creative juices flow free, rather than be consumed by something as trivial as our inability to affect change as quickly or efficiently as we would like.