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I’ve felt trailed by a hazy, gray cloud for nearly my entire 30 years on Earth. The cloud isn’t raining, per se. Nor does it completely block the sun when it shines. It’s just gray, misty-feeling, and persistent.
Merriam-Webster has two entries for the word “melancholy.” As a noun, it’s defined as “a pensive mood” or “depression of spirits.” As an adjective, it’s “sadness or depression of mind and spirit.” To me, it’s bittersweetness. It’s a state of wistfulness characterized by a propensity for (often somber) reflection. It’s not depression, nor is it the antithesis of joy; there can be elation and hope in my melancholy. It’s a bliss that encompasses two things at once: the happiness tinged with sadness and vice versa. It’s less an emotion and more a personality type—one that’s highly susceptible to rolling waves of heaviness, longing, and sentimentality. It’s a complex, ancient trait that has especially plagued philosophers, painters, writers, musicians, and other artists for centuries.
The bittersweetness of my melancholy is woven into the very core of my being, my proclivity for contemplation creeping into every moment, be it shrouded in joy, anger, contentment, or mere boredom. Even the meaningless moments feel all too meaningful, overbearing even.
Most recently, I teared up watching a sunfish dutifully guard its nest at the local lake, awed by how such a benign creature could be so dedicated to protecting young it didn’t even have yet. I’m often moved to tears by nature, nostalgia, and things that aren’t necessarily happy but aren’t necessarily sad, either. And yet, I’m drawn to them. The complexities of life pull me in like a moth to a sad, blue flame.
Trying to connect with others about experiencing life this way, even close friends and family members, has only left me feeling misunderstood and isolated. I was dubbed “overly sensitive” and “too emotional” before I even knew what the words meant. And as an adult, those are labels I’ve just come to believe about myself; I learned to chalk up my melancholy to a natural shortcoming, but a part of my identity nonetheless.
It’s why I feel like I’m always the last to be informed of bad news in my family’s game of telephone—no one wants to break the news to me. It’s also why I feel like my family views my younger sister as the problem-solver, the rational one—whereas they see me as weaker, with my soul more cracked and fragile. Even during my most joyous celebrations—birthdays, graduations, promotions, and other personal milestones—my father will remind me, “You need to enjoy the moment.”
How can I explain to him that I am enjoying the moment—longing for it even—acutely aware of the beauty and significance of it by its very passing?
It wasn’t until I read author and speaker Susan Cain’s 2022 book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, that I felt truly seen and understood. A melancholic manifesto of sorts, the book explores facets of the bittersweet, melancholic disposition: what it means to be “bittersweet,” the psychology behind such wistfulness, and why some of us are drawn to, and actually find joy in, the somber things in life.
Cain combines extensive journalistic research with her own penchant for poignancy, citing her love of Leonard Cohen’s haunting “funeral music” (a butt of jokes among her colleagues) as the catalyst for exploring why she is “melancholic by nature.” Reading it confirmed that, like Cain, I am a bittersweet gal: I like listening to music that makes me feel sad. I find solace and inspiration in the gloomiest days. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is my go-to, on-in-the-background movie. There’s even a quiz Cain created in conjunction with the book that rates your bittersweetness, and my score of 9.2 out of 10 certified me as a “connoisseur” for contemplation. But perhaps most notably, after reading the book, I finally saw my bittersweetness—my lifelong melancholy —portrayed as a positive.
A new purpose and meaning for my melancholy
Throughout Bittersweet, Cain asserts that mainstream culture has long written off the melancholy temperament as a flaw rather than acknowledging its power, citing research indicating that those like me—people who seek deeper meaning, long for the past and present, and feel life more intensely—may also live more grateful, fulfilling lives. She breaks out the benefits of being melancholy or bittersweet into three main buckets (creativity, connection, and transcendence) and argues that each makes the disposition not a shortcoming, but a superpower to behold.
“I’ve concluded that bittersweetness is not, as we tend to think, just a momentary feeling or event. It’s also a quiet force, a way of being, a storied tradition—as dramatically overlooked as it is brimming with human potential,” Cain writes. “It’s an authentic and elevating response to the problem of being alive in a deeply flawed yet stubbornly beautiful world.”
Her words showed me that my somber temperament isn’t an Achilles’ heel, but a Herculean strength—as both a person and a writer. “A lot of the best artists have had this streak of melancholy that feeds them because they’re so much more sensitive and receptive to all of the layers of the world around them,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “Once you learn to manage it rather than be overwhelmed by it… it can be honed and crafted into a real benefit.”
My own longing has always pushed me to consider my feelings, my connections, and my legacy more deeply, with a close eye on my own mortality. The niggling pain that life is fleeting and that nothing is guaranteed fuels what Cain calls the “creative offering,” which in my case, is writing.
The trick to avoiding the pitfall of the “tortured artist” trope, though, is to not languish. “When we find ourselves getting dark and stuck, we really just want to try to let the feeling pass through us,” says Dr. Manly. “No matter our personality type, we want to learn to be in [our feelings], and then let them move through… That’s how we avoid going down a rabbit hole [toward] sadness or depression.” Still, there’s beauty in the moments of stuckness, too—the bouts of loneliness or hopelessness that inspire me to keep writing and creating, if only to avoid getting stuck again.
Another poignant takeaway from Cain’s book positions melancholy as a force for empathy. “If we could honor sadness a little more, maybe we could see it—rather than enforced smiles and righteous outrage—as the bridge we need to connect with each other,” Cain writes. “We could remember that no matter how distasteful we might find someone’s opinions, no matter how radiant, or fierce, someone may appear, they have suffered, or they will.”
I’ve always felt highly attuned to other people’s emotions, but Harvard fellow and neuropsychologist Julia DiGangi, PhD, adds that this sensitivity can go both ways. Embracing my true feelings—bittersweet or otherwise—can be “emotionally magnetic” to those in my orbit.
“What many of us want is a meaningful connection with other people,” says DiGangi. “When we are willing to authentically like what’s beautiful about ourselves, we give people permission to like what’s authentically beautiful about themselves. And when we say, ‘Hey, it’s okay to feel [a negative feeling]—I feel this way, too,’ it feels like this giant, empowering exhale.”
The drawbacks of trying to dull my melancholy
Acknowledging and accepting all your feelings in this way (especially the melancholic ones) also comes with a totally underrated set of personal benefits, as described in Dr. Digangi’s upcoming book, Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading With Emotional Power.
Whereas the popular discourse might position “having a lot of feelings” as a deficit to productivity or potential, the thesis of Dr. DiGangi’s new book posits just the opposite: that when we lean into our true feelings (which she says come from actual neurological impulses fired in our brains) rather than fighting them, we unleash the strongest, smartest versions of ourselves—or what Dr. DiGangi calls our “emotional power.” Trying to deny these pieces of ourselves, by contrast, only leads to “emotional constipation,” she says: Our feelings get all built up with nowhere to go, left to fester in the form of stress, uncertainty, and defeat.
It’s only in embracing all the parts of you—the good parts, the acceptable parts, the pretty parts, the weird parts, the confusing parts, and, yes, the melancholy parts—that you can tap into your emotional power, says Dr. DiGangi. And that explains why I’ve always felt, deep down, that I couldn’t just turn off my melancholy. I’ve realized that it’s a key part of who I am, and to try to suppress it is far more draining than letting it course through me. “If we’re not allowing ourselves to go into our core emotions, we’re just denying ourselves our gifts,” says Dr. Manly.
As it turns out, reclaiming my melancholy as a wellspring for my creativity and empathy and a catalyst to do the things that fulfill me is way more empowering (and, quite frankly, less exhausting) than trying to bury it in stoicism. I feel things so deeply! And now I know that, for me, that’s a good thing that shrouds the misty cloud that follows me in silver linings. While the cloud sometimes shadows me, I’ll continue to lean into the happy and the sad—or as Cain so eloquently puts it, the light and the dark, the bitter and the sweet. And I don’t owe anyone an explanation—much less a justification—for my giant, tender heart.
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- Brady, Emily, and Arto Haapala. “Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion.” Contemporary Aesthetics, Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 1 Jan. 1970, quod.lib.umich.edu/c/ca/7523862.0001.006/–melancholy-as-an-aesthetic-emotion/
- Zimmerman, Francis. The History of Melancholy. 1 Jan. 1995, quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jii/4750978.0002.205/–history-of-melancholy/
- Cain, Susan. Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. First edition. New York, Crown, 2022.
- Akinola, Modupe, and Wendy Berry Mendes. “The dark side of creativity: biological vulnerability and negative emotions lead to greater artistic creativity.” Personality & social psychology bulletin vol. 34,12 (2008): 1677-86. doi:10.1177/0146167208323933
- Cao, Yuan, et al. “Low Mood Leads to Increased Empathic Distress at Seeing Others’ Pain.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 8, Frontiers Media, Nov. 2017,
- Yaden, David B., et al. “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience.” Review of General Psychology, vol. 21, no. 2, American Psychological Association, June 2017, pp. 143–60.
- DiGangi, Julia. Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading With Emotional Power. First edition. Brighton, MA., Harvard Business Review, 2023.