Mar 2, 2010

On Melancholy

I just read (skimmed, actually) an interesting article called "Depression's Upside" at nytimes.com. Chances are, if you end up reading the entire thing, too, then you must be melancholic yourself.

Depression is one of those age-old phenomena that has been taken over by commercial interests who would like as many people as possible to think they have a problem that requires treatment. I prefer to divide what we today call "depression" into two categories -- pathological "depression" and normal "melancholy." Melancholy is the historical and more accurate term for what so many of us experience on a regular basis.

The article talks at length about research that shows that melancholy is associated with greater focus, creative output, and analytical thinking. It states,

In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.
Wonderful. Surely this should be included as one of the "7 habits of highly effective people." Actually, it may already be implied. Who else would be predisposed to ruminate over their long-term goals, form "personal mission statements," and to spend time analyzing their behavior, attitudes, and assumptions? I'm sure Stephen Covey is himself depressed -- just look at his writing output. Something is clearly bugging him! In fact, all the people I know who've really gotten into Stephen Covey have been melancholic. Hmmm....

I laugh at this topic because I am myself a writer, am prone to introspection and extreme focus over long periods of time, and am highly analytical and generally perceived as a creative person. Melancholy is a normal part of my life, a valuable resource to be utilized but not overexploited. I owe many great ideas and wonderful decisions to my propensity to think long and carefully about things, introspect, and distance myself from social stimuli. I wouldn't trade my melancholy for a million dollars (indeed, to earn a million dollars in the first place one would have to be melancholic).

While I scoff at the thought of ever thinking of myself now as "depressed," there have been a few times in the past when I would have certainly qualified for the term. In each case there were objective causes -- always interpersonal -- to my protracted malaise.

Thanks to socionics, I became aware of the kinds of interpersonal factors that might have been causing my multi-month blues. I came to believe that the types of the people around me were having a great effect on my general emotional state, and that results could be obtained by changing the types in my environment by choosing more carefully whom I lived with, worked with, and was emotionally close with. This strategy worked! It took a couple years to make my "type environment" the way I wanted and to learn to stop nagging people with the "wrong" types to try to get them to start understanding and validating me. But since then, I have never had anything that I would call full-fledged depression.

And yet, the melancholy continued to come and go even as my life circumstances improved. I believe it has a physiological component that is built into my temperament, whereas my "depression" was the result of external factors that could be influenced or removed.

I observe that melancholics can be of any socionic type, and that many IEEs are not melancholic like I am. Melancholy seems to be something that is mostly or fully independent of type.

My experience is that melancholic IEEs tend to be introspective, slower-paced, and share more original thoughts. Those who lack the boon of melancholy seem to easily lose their train of thought, jump from topic to topic, and engage in more superficial conversation and gathering of random but "potentially interesting" data. They are more sociable and spend less time alone, thinking or working.

In general, melancholic individuals of any type seem to be a bit distanced from society, which is virtually a prerequisite to doing most kinds of creative work. One of the challenges in life for these individuals may be connecting with other people. At the same time, when they do connect, it may seem to be a deeper kind of connection than non-melancholics enjoy.

Most melancholics seem to need things to be "a certain way" so that they can work productively. Their special demands may make it harder to find a spot for themselves in the workplace, where conditions are adapted for the average person's needs (at least theoretically). On the other hand, given ideal conditions, the melancholics can be particularly productive and creative.

In terms of interaction, too many melancholics or non-melancholics together may be a bad thing. Melancholics may tire of the excessive seriousness, while non-melancholics may tire of the lack of substance. Both groups have something important to offer, and they tend to intermix to a degree.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

In addition to melanchology, even pathological depression, if the result of personality issues, can offer great opportunities for growth. E.g. in Psychoanalysis it is considered essential that pathological narcissists go through periods of depressions as part of their recovery process. The depression are the effects of a sort of addition, which manifest as resistance to change. But once you get through these, the boons are really great.

It is indeed important to have the right kind of people around you as a support network, but in order for it to function, a decent level of self-esteem (both in yourself as well as the other people involved) is required.

You talk about how it took you a couple of years to create your own 'type environment'. I myself currently am just starting that myself. I would love to hear what 'type environment' you came from and how you went about creating a new one. Perhaps a good subject for a future blog?

Consentingadult.

Aleesha said...

I have bipolar disorder. I've been having depressive episodes for 14 years and hypomanic episodes for 10 years. I spend most of the year depressed, but not always major depression. I don't really know what "normal" moods feel like, though I assume I experienced them at some point.

I do also have a melacholic sort of personality, as you described it. I have to agree with the observation that melancholia can improve creative and analytical thought, form my own experience. I also recall that Dr Amen (I forget the first name) did a SPECT study that demonstrated that particular parts of the brain (though it was several years ago now and I cannot remember which) were highly active during negative moods, and that positive moods lowered overall brain activity. This makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective because if you're in a good mood, it probably means you don't have to do anything!

I think that I am at my most clear-headed, creative and productive when I am mildly to moderately depressed. Unfortunately it's a parabola, you hit a certain point and you start turning into a vegetable. When I'm severely depressed I can't concentrate on anything and I can barely read or write. Not a very creative time.

Like consentingadult, I'd also like to hear about your process of creating a better type environment. My social circle is full of Betas and Gammas and I'm pretty sure that's not helping me.

Anonymous said...

speaking of depression and melancholy.. how do you refer to the theory of quadrants? [ http://www.the16types.info/vbulletin/other-personality-typologies/14942-functional-revise.html ]

Especially this part:
The Depressives (-Fi/+Fe in ego, +Ti/-Te agenda) INFp; ENFj; ISFj; ESFp
This group feels very depressed and lonely inside. They tend to feel a touch of dissatisfaction with the people in which they are in a relationship with. They push people away. They have a sorrowful and tragic view of the world. They are nice to people. They try to bring out the positive emotions of people. They laugh a lot and attempt to get other people to laugh. This group has a need to organize and study things carefully. This group may read a lot.

Seems like a description of lifetime melancholy and depression(;D)

regards
XD

Rick said...

Anonymous, the description you cite has no consistency and is full of unrelated or conflicting traits. I think it's bogus. Also, it makes no sense coming from Model A.

Anonymous said...

Well that's relieving..;)
(found it on Wikisocion and the16types forum)
regards
X.D.

Anonymous said...

good thoughts on depression, which is so common, i like how you discussed the impact of depression on type expression. now, what about the anxiety-ridden? how does anxiety tend to play out in type expression?

Rick said...

I don't have much experience with or knowledge of anxiety, but I learned a bit on Wikipedia.

In general, I would expect anxiety to suppress type expression, i.e. make people's behavior more generic and less individualized. Anxiety seems to come from a deeper area of the brain than personality, so it would, if aroused, override most personality traits.