The Anatomy of Melancholy

For the past few days I’ve found myself in periodic bouts of melancholy. And that isn’t a good sign. It’s one of those uncomfortable emotions with no tangible upside,unlike the way the queasiness of something new might lead to novel discoveries. In that sense, the opposite of melancholy would be feeling empowered to act. So we want more of that and less of melancholy in our lives, don’t we?

To dissect this emotion I’ll take a page from Paul Graham’s article, “The Anatomy of Determination”. This is the melon-seed model of melancholy. So let’s say you’re holding a melon seed between your two fingers, trying to propel it straight to a point.One force is how bad your situation is(well, relative to your ideals), the other is how much control you have over changing the situation(that’s perspective, again), and your inability to propel the seed in a straight line is the depths of melancholy reached. The more the first force outweighs the second, the higher the chance the seed is gonna spin into a crazy path or just fall at your feet. When both forces are equal, you have a depressing situation, but you have just enough leverage to turn it around- that translates to the will to fight out of it. When the situation spins out control and gets worse….well that weakens our will and melancholy pulls us into its dark, murky depths.

It doesn’t feel great being there. You don’t get anything tangible done, time flies by as you contemplate your pathetic existence, and you don’t see light at the end of this dark underwater tunnel.

So how do we not go there?Consider the two forces controlling the onset of this emotion- challenging situations, and control over the situation. Well we could start by avoiding challenging situations. Turns out, that isn’t a good recipe for happiness. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, said Nietzsche. Know that feeling of after having binge-watched a whole season of Silicon Valley or a packet of chips. Guilt. Because one, the task wasn’t challenging enough, and two, it didn’t matter for the long game; it actually sabotaged a lot of work at discipline, or the gym.

So the solution seems to be in challenging situations, over which we have total control. And ironically, for most, the challenging situation is not having anything interesting to do. And of course, you have total control over it. Get on with it. And for those who think everything is spiraling out of control, there’s always something you can control. Find it, and focus on that. It seems hypocritical to be writing so while I myself am emerging from a melancholic bout, but honestly this little piece was for myself, to draw a solution. Hope it helped you too. ;)

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PS: Link to PG’s article:

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