Making space for melancholy - RSA

Making space for melancholy


  • Picture of Clem Henricson FRSA
    Clem Henricson FRSA
  • Mental health
  • Cognition

We live in an era when 'happiness' has become the litmus test for the good life. But is that a good thing or has it been achieved on the back of crimping major human emotions? Might not these feelings require cultural awareness and support; accommodation rather than denial? Clem Henricson FRSA argues that 'melancholy' is one such emotion.

Our preoccupation with the notion of happiness and upbeat living has numerous manifestations. There is a stock of self-help literature across the spectrum from philosophical endeavours in the vein of Alain de Botton, to publications with practical tips for daily living. There are, too, socio-policy enterprises advocating and gaging the components of happiness and the role of policy in enhancing its spread. Embracing this approach, happiness indicators are used by governments as a measure of success. Sharing the arguments of his book, A Manifesto for Happiness, Richard Layard spoke recently at the RSA on the merits of such endeavour.

The philosophy of melancholy

Despite this mood music, the pursuit of happiness is by no means unchallenged. There are precedents for questioning the promotion of happiness as the rationale for living and consequent framing of lifestyles. Examples range from John Stuart Mill's querying of utilitarianism in the 19th century and a similar indictment by the English political philosopher John Gray in the 21st century; both indicating a preference for knowledge and truth as an objective. Then we have anxieties over the emergence of an anaesthetised culture unable to produce the heights of tragic art, and here we have the American scholars Ronald Dworkin (Artificial Happiness, 2006) and Eric Wilson (Against Happiness, 2008).

There is a strong case to be made for extending these concerns to include the inability of happiness to meet the full needs of the human psyche. The contention is that there is a universal psychological link between melancholy and the lifelong human experience of 'detachment'. The word detachment is used here, not in the sense of being emotionally aloof, but to describe the many facets of separation and loss that human beings experience as an inevitable part of living. There is detachment from the womb at birth and detachment from the world at death. As well as these two momentous events, there are multiple detachments as people pass through life. Significant are separations from close relationships with parents and subsequently children, and incidents of dissolving relationships with peers. Spatial movements between different surroundings, homes and countries are poignant too. People develop attachments to places and when they are severed there is a sense of loss. Changes in the natural and built environment and ways of living are often perceived with regret and even sadness. Humans thrive on change but they also mourn loss and the passage of time, the movement from the present to the past. This pervasive association between detachment, loss and living needs to be embraced rather than denied.

Overviews of the use of the term melancholy, such as Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy in the in the 17th century and László Földényi’s Melancholy in the 20th, show it to have been systematically pathologised and confused with depression and other mental health issues. There has been a misplaced emphasis on the avoidance of melancholy feelings and a refusal to accept them as an important feature of human conception and identity.

The meaning of melancholy

Societies often have expectations of behavior that prove oppressive. For example, in the past there were expectations in relation to duty, religiosity and sexual abstinence that ran counter to human impulse and a changing social mood. There were liberating benefits in introducing options for change and choice in the face of constricting trends of acceptability in these spheres. A similar case can be made in respect of the current engagement with happiness. Psychological wellbeing may be improved by reducing the oppression of an unrealistic expectation of happiness and in lessening the onerous obligation to engage with false optimism.

But if there is value to be had from offering social and cultural space for melancholy what would this look like in practice? First, the expansion and publicising of artistic engagement with melancholy in multiple settings. This would involve the projection of the emotion through artistic discussion in a variety of media and the development of arts' programmes with a melancholic perspective. The arts are where melancholy is most commonly recognised and accommodated as a core human emotion. There is expression of the feeling across painting, sculpture, music, film and literature. Solace and fulfillment can be found in these acts of creation some of which reach the height of human achievement. As pointers to an approach that both reflects and accepts the reality of loss and sadness, the melancholic arts should be facilitated to contribute to a broad based public conversation.

Second, the creation and preservation of environmental spaces, both natural and manufactured, that are conducive to spirituality. This would include, but significantly take us beyond religious buildings to offer a variety of settings to meet the needs of a secular age. The conceptualisation of these spaces would require innovative thinking and participatory consultation alongside professional consideration of environmental aesthetics, architecture, opportunities for public sculpture and installations, landscaping and urban and rural planning. 

Third, the stimulation of discourse around expectations of ways of living that accommodate melancholy. This would address matters such as the nature of melancholy including its comforts, its significance in terms of group and individual living habits and its role in rituals, in the marking of private and public events, and in the collective recognition of loss and social change.

And finally, the promotion of a wide ranging public and specialist discussion of the role of melancholy with a view to influencing the development of understanding and appropriate wellbeing assessments. The intention would not be to assess the degree to which people feel melancholic; subjective indicators would be confined instead to gaging the extent to which people feel free and enabled to express and experience melancholy. The measures proposed in relation to the arts, environments and discourse on ways of living could be measured as objective indicators. The core of the investigation would be the degree to which melancholy is institutionally supported and consequently liberated.

In making space for melancholy, what is not being suggested is a collective wallow in nostalgia or an excuse for inactivity or abandonment of other critical aspects of wellbeing. The capacity of society to mitigate inequality, poverty and other structural matters that have an adverse impact on human beings is fully endorsed. Rather what is being sought is the notion of fulfillment within the limitations of what is realistic and which caters for a significant strand of sadness and reflection on loss. The intention is not to countermand happiness, but rather to open up for acceptance and development an aspect of consciousness that has the potential to offer balm away from the glare of optimism.

The pleasure of melancholy, the kindness of melancholy is its closeness to where we are: realism bathed in the relief that there is nowhere left to fall. The feeling is of being in tune with life in a minor key. Cultivating melancholy involves a delicate combination of diminution and aggrandisement. Exclusion, solitude and littleness are elevated to nobility spread across the texture of living.


Clem Henricson FRSA is the author of Morality and Public Policy and A Revolution in Family Policy

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.