An essay by Micha Van Dinther
When our modern society emphasises happiness as the most desirable of emotions, we want to make a case for melancholy. Instead of an affliction, perhaps melancholy is a state of mind that brings us into balance and helps us to look deeper inside ourselves.
Born in northern France, Belgian model and interior designer Laurence Desbisschop may have grown up in Belgium, but she didn’t stay put for long. At just 19 years old, she dropped her studies in Economics and Communication to follow her dream to explore the world. The shy young Desbisschop tried her luck at modelling in New York and caught a break walking the runway for Jil Sander. She was soon walking for Versace, Comme des Garçons, Isabel Marant, Dries van Noten, Dior and Galliano – the latter two being genuine highlights of her life. After spending several years in New York, Desbisschop, her husband Thomas and their two daughters Eloize and Olivia have recently returned to Belgium.
A couple of weeks ago seated around the dining table with extended family, the slightly unexpected topic of melancholy came up for discussion. Possibly sparked by the gloomy weather or the temperamental playlist in the background, the topic quickly had the table divided into two camps. While some of us tried to avoid it like the plague, others – me included – argued that the intermittent sensation of melancholy could actually be beneficial and lead to something positive and productive. However, the acute question, ‘How can sadness, in any form, be something good?’, posed by my 13-year-old nephew, put us all on the spot. Does feeling blue always have to be a bad thing?
Melancholy, described by Merriam-Webster as ‘a depression of spirits’ or ‘a pensive mood’, derives from the Greek words melania and chole that translate to mean ‘black bile’. According to the Ancient Greek medical theory of the four humours, central to the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen, the human body contained four liquids – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. It was believed that the state of melancholy was caused by a bodily imbalance of excess black bile.
It is important to distinguish between the words melancholia and melancholy. While melancholia is a historic mental condition characterised by extreme depression, melancholy most often refers to a sombre state of mind or mood that descends upon us. Or, if I were to try to describe my own experience with melancholy, like briefly being engulfed by a mist or vapour until it disperses to bring back clear sight.
The world tells us that constant happiness is what we should aim for. And that complete happiness – without even the slightest little cloud to obscure the radiating sun on a clear blue sky – is fully obtainable. We are bombarded with messages telling us to find our bliss, followed by a how-to of five quick and easy steps. Books on happiness overflow the shelves of the local bookstore’s self-help section, laughter yoga is all the rage and overly enthusiastic voices on podcasts declare that happiness is a choice you make. There’s even the World Happiness Report that collects data to measure how happy the people of each nation are. (Congrats, Finns, you’re the happiest people alive, in case you didn’t know.)