Being sad can actually make you happy! Why melancholy is a gift
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
I’m a type 4 on the enneagram – “a system of personality which describes people in terms of nine types, each with their motivations, fears, and internal dynamics.” Type 4 is known as the ‘romantic’ or ‘individualist’. A person with a need to be remarkable. And a personality type plagued by melancholy and envy.
Sadness has been a constant companion in my life. A fog that reminds me that I can’t possibly be ordinary and constantly tells me that I’m missing out and should have whatever everyone has.
I’ve seen psychologists to fight my heaviness and be happy.
I’ve been diagnosed with depression, OCD, and general anxiety disorder numerous times. I have been ploughed with mood stabilisers and anti-depressants to help my brain perform optimally (or less melancholically). None of which seemed to help.
It wasn’t until I discovered the enneagram and became certified as an enneagram coach that I discovered my type and understood my latent (and inherent) melancholy.
Type 4s, when seeking professional relief from their darkness, are often diagnosed with depression. Yet, their melancholy is, in fact, not chemically induced but a primal and nurtured response to the world (and the way they were parented) as they perceived it growing up.
The type 4 romantics of the enneagram feel profoundly disconnected from the world and long to feel special. This results in a constant current of melancholy that, at times, feels like the main character in the script of their lives.
So, why am I telling you this?
Because sadness can be surprisingly good for you. And may be your most significant gift (especially if you’re a type 4).
Let’s start by unpacking melancholy
Okay, I’m going to get a bit academic here and unpack what melancholy, or sadness as it’s commonly known, is.
Melancholy has been written about and philosophised often in history. Aristotle pondered why many poets, philosophers, artists and politicians tended to the melancholic. Others said melancholy was a necessary temperament for thinkers and philosophers because the melancholic person was more inclined to brood over impossible, difficult and absent things.
The Hippocratic thinkers considered melancholy to be one of the four humours or temperaments intrinsic to the human being, along with sanguine (happy), choleric (aggressive), and phlegmatic (calm).
As years rolled on, western civilisation shifted its focus to two of the humours – being happy (sanguine) and calm (phlegmatic), relegating sadness (melancholy) and aggression (choleric) to the realms of being in unhealthy psychological territory.
Freud used “melancholia” to describe clinical depression, blurring the lines between inherent sadness and chemical imbalance. Because of this, therapies and potions have been devised to quell sadness (and aggression).
The Hippocratic nuances of our humanity are no longer embraced, and sorrow, grief, or anguish can be tolerated when fleeting. Never can they be pervasive.
This is particularly evident when you consider the compassionate leave legislation we have in business in South Africa. Should a family member die, you are allowed three days to grieve and be sad. After these have passed, you need to return to work, embracing happiness and calm. Sadness must be temporary. Prolonged or extended, melancholy is weakness.
Psychologist, Susan David found that many of us consider emotions such as sadness and grief to be “negative” emotions. How often do we hear the trite response, “Don’t be sad,” when a person (or a child) declares “I feel sad,” like it simply requires a quick flip of the switch to extinguish the emotion.
In Bittersweet, author Susan Cain argues that the ideal community, like the ideal human, should embody all four temperaments. Our community seems far from ideal. Being happy and positive is praised, while being sad or gloomy can often cause those around us to withdraw or comment on how being around the melancholic is a “downer”.
We need to think differently about being sad.
That it’s beautiful.
It’s where we can create. Where we can find art and splendour. And where we can embrace all facets of what it means to be human.
Some of the saddest moments are the ones that can make your heart soar. Crying in a movie is strangely liberating. Listening to a sad song and getting the feels is energising. It reminds you that you’re human.
Melancholy is part of our make-up
Melancholy dominates some personality types more than others but is a part of all humans. Forcing melancholy to the depths of the abyss of emotions we are allowed to access means denying a vital part of our psychological DNA. Melancholy can be as congenital to some as the colour of their eyes. Beyond control.
Running from melancholy means potentially repressing a part of who you are and how you experience life in its rich, hued tapestry.
Being happy can be bad for you
“The paradox of happiness,” says David, “is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself.” When we’re content and feel like things are going swimmingly, we tend not to think about anything too challenging. David surmises that “highly positive people can be less creative than those with a more moderate level of positive emotion.”
Focusing on staying happy shifts us into an unnatural state of being. The pursuit of happiness can result in the elevation of despair.
Melancholy fuels the creative
In a fourteenth-century mystical work, melancholy was equated with longing.
Melancholy reminds us of what we don’t have – the loss of something once possessed and cherished or longing for what we cannot have.
Longing, or loss, has created some of the world’s most treasured paintings, plays, movies, and songs. The history of art is mapped with memorialised longing. While you don’t need to be melancholic to be creative, acknowledging the melancholic can awaken a world of light and shade, a symphony mottled with both crescendo and diminuendo.
Many of the great artists were tormented and troubled. Melancholy rippled below the surface of their work. Their gift was not their melancholy. It was their ability to sit with it and use it for beauty. Their melancholy, longing for a world of perfection, summoned perfection into being.
In the 17th Century, in Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton said that creativity could be activated by becoming melancholic or stepping into a melancholic state. “They get their knowledge by books, I mine by melancholising,” he wrote. Melancholizing, long out of use in the English vocabulary, is used as a verb – that melancholy is something one does.
Doing sadness can help you be creative.
The secret strength of sadness
We suffer because we live.
Cain writes about “the compassionate instinct,” one of the cornerstones of the research conducted by psychology professor Dacher Keltner. This instinct is what makes humans successful as a species – our instinct to want to relieve the pain of others. The finding tells us “that our impulse to respond to other beings’ sadness sits in the same location as our need to breathe, digest food, reproduce and protect our babies,” says Cain. Caring, she explains, is at the heart of human existence. Ultimately sadness is about caring. Sadness is compassion.
In fact, depressed and formerly depressed people are more likely to empathise with others and to experience compassion.
Type 4s, the most melancholic personality type in the enneagram, are also considered to be the most empathetic and sensitive to the emotions of others. The ability to sit with sadness makes you a more compassionate person.
In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman writes that sadness “creates the opportunity to mourn a loss or frustrated hope, grasp its consequences for one’s life, and, as energy returns, plan new beginnings.”
Sadness can be the flame from which the phoenix can emerge.
Too much melancholy is a bad thing
This article does not advocate that we actively attempt to be melancholic in excess or allow ourselves to wallow in the mire of sadness. The Hippocratic writings refer to ‘too much’ melancholy as melaina-kole (black bile) – when melancholia supersedes the other three humours and dominates one’s way of thinking and being. Melancholy is an integral part of being human, but it cannot be pervasive. Much like the phlegmatic – aggression can create drive and impetus to succeed, but excess aggression is not healthy or helpful.
Melancholy is healthy when appropriately accessed, nurtured, and invited to the table. Helpful. And can help you be happier.
Being sad reminds us of what makes us happy.
Being sad reminds us of what it means to be human.
To make space for melancholy is to allow yourself to live. Dream. Long. And create.
Want to find out your enneagram personality type? Book a session with me and we'll have fun unpacking the layers of who you are! Drop me a mail if you're keen: firstname.lastname@example.org.