The Joy of Melancholia

There is a tendency these days to state that any form of low mood is a form of depression and should be dealt with post-haste.  With elevated public awareness of mental illnesses and stress or as it is often termed these days Mental Health, we seem to be under the impression that feeling a bit down is a bad thing.

Our emotions are there to help us through our day-to-day life.  They all have a reason to exist and have a defined purpose in what they do.  Moods are a more prolonged but less intense form of emotional state.  They allow other emotions to occur at the same time but can colour the way you react to other emotional stimulus.  Why do we have such an issue about “negative” emotions (I already have issue with the term negative as there is a positive reason behind all emotions.)

Some people will deliberately go to the cinema or watch a DVD that will cause them to feel scared or sad.  The classic “weepy” film still has a huge following. People go to theme parks to ride roller coasters and watch a horror film or a thriller to be scared.  If these emotions are so negative, why do we sometimes indulge them?

If we had no emotional ups and downs everything would be on an emotional level.  We would be terribly bored!  We sometimes need those low points in our life as they put the high points into sharp relief.  If we didn’t have fear would we ever really feel safe?  If we did have sadness, would we ever really be happy?

There is something terribly satisfying about coming out of the other side of a negative mood.  There is a sense of victory at getting over it and moving on.

Fear has a reward of its own, adrenaline.  That rush that you get when the heart races and breathing increases.  Once the adrenaline breaks down other chemicals in the system give you an almost euphoric high.  We love the thrill of danger, within certain limits.  We still have a very strong sense of self-preservation, and danger is all very well if it is still perceived as having some degree of safety to it.  The fairground thrill ride is a thrill because it scares us, but has its safety checks and restraints.  For the same reason people bungee or abseil.  Your are unlikely to see many people riding a coaster with a poor safety record.

So what about sadness?  There is no doubt that people love a good weepy movie.  Indeed Hollywood has made a very lucrative business out of tugging our heart-strings.  But why are they so successful.  There are two reasons that immediately come to mind.

Firstly, a sad situation on a movie can throw our own life into sharp relief.  There is the though in the mind that someone else is always worse off than we are.  There is the new perspective offered by seeing that things are not so bad.  Most of the time people do tend to watch these films when they are particularly low in their life and often they are going through the same situation as the person on the screen, surely this would compound the issue?

The reason for this can be quite simple when you think about it.  As a race we are empathic creatures.  We feel the emotions of others quite keenly.  When we see an emotion on the face of another we tend to mirror that emotion, especially if we have a connection to that person.  We do this without even realising we are doing it.  It is our way of letting others know that we know we understand how they feel.  We tend to mirror but often to a lesser degree.  If someone is showing an expression of Anguish, we are unlikely to show the same.  That could be seen as mocking.  We would demonstrate sadness to show that we understand how they are feeling, but we know there is a limit on how we should feel in relation to someone else’s pain.

So why do we watch sad films when we are feeling low?  Why do we watch a film about divorce and heartbreak when we are going through the same thing?  It is reverse empathy.  We want that feeling of community and that we are not alone.  Rather than impose that uncomfortable feeling on our friends we watch someone going through the same things so that we can empathise with them and on a subliminal level, they are empathising with us.

Romantic comedies have the same draw and for very similar reasons.  We see someone in emotional difficulty but we are given the opportunity to laugh at their situation, because that is the easiest way to laugh at our own.  We often use comedy to mask true feelings or to get a message across in a way that is more easily accepted.

There is no excuse for Meg Ryan though, and if you ever want to see a textbook example of stone-walling, watch her interview with Michael Parkinson.  

So why the joy of melancholia. I term melancholy as that time when you are just feeling out of sorts and slightly low.  You want to withdraw from the world for a little while and just be with yourself.  You feel disassociated from the world around you.  You can get snippy and peevish for no real reason.  I think this is perfectly healthy.  Indulge the melancholy.  Go and sit quietly for a while in your favourite seat, watch the rain pour down the windows and treat yourself to your favourite temptation.  Wrapped up in your favourite woollen jumper and the cat on your knee.  What can be better than that?

Even anger has its place.  Sometimes you need to be angry.  If you bottle all that anger up eventually you are going to end up in a flash-point situation where the slightest thing would be like a spark to a powder keg.  If you feel angry then feel angry.  At least then your anger is focussed in the right direction and unlikely to be vented on an undeserving target.

We should indulge our emotions and feelings, though we should avoid being a slave to them.  Analyse why you are feeling the way you are, then either rationalise it and move on, or accept it and indulge it.

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