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A brief history of melancholy - Courtney Stephens


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If you are a living, breathing human being, chances are you have felt sad at least a few times in your life. But what exactly is melancholy, and what (if anything) should we do about it? Courtney Stephens details our still-evolving understanding of sadness -- and even makes a case for its usefulness.

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Robert Burton attempted to gather the totality of human thinking on sadness and melancholy in his 1621 book The Anatomy of Melancholy. Similar to the approach in this video, Burton gathered widely in thinking about the subject. This includes quotes from thinkers and literature, anatomical drawings, and Burton’s own meditations. Check this page of quotes by Robert Burton for more insight into his thinking!

Burton was fascinated by the ancient humoral medical system, from which the word melancholy is derived: Black bile = melancholia. Those with an excess of this humor were expected to be serious and despondent. Those with an excess of yellow bile were described as choleric – quick to anger and restless. A person with an excess of phlegm or phlegma, the third humor, was thought to tend towards laziness and apathy. The word phlegmatic still describes these kinds of tendencies. (The actual word phlegm is now used to describe the type of mucus we cough up when we have a chest infection.) Those dominated by the fourth humor – blood – were described as sanguine – good natured and playful. These words still remain in circulation, though their origins have faded into obscurity. Incidentally, the Greeks were not the only ones with a humoral medical system – India and China still retain very strong humoral-oriented systems.

Burton’s quote “he who increaseth wisdom increaseth sorrow,” (which some have suggested was Burton being ironic) has become a cliché that artists and writers tend to attribute to depression and other challenging emotions. Doctor and poet Richard M. Berlin has attempted to study the link between depression and poetry. Read an interview with Dr. Berlin here. Depression or bouts of melancholy were once seen as unusual or taboo in the West, but recently many public figures have come forward to talk about their struggles with depression. Read here about Debra Bowen’s struggle with depression. How can you defend against depression? Exercise, meditation or improving your diet! Check out this Science Friday story: This Doc’s Miracle Drug? Exercise or this NPR interview Combating Depression with Meditation,Diet.

In the Buddhist worldview, suffering has always been regarded as part of the fundamental fabric of reality. Inquiring into the cycle of suffering is a central tenet of Buddhist learning and practice. Suffering is seen as something to be looked at carefully, with the belief that while we may not be able to eliminate the sources of suffering in the world, we do have the power to understand better the workings of our own minds.

Sooner or later, everyone gets the blues. Feeling sadness, loneliness, or grief when you go through a difficult life experience is part of being human. And most of the time, you can continue to function. You know that in time you will bounce back, and you do. But what if you don’t bounce back? What if your feelings of sadness linger, are excessive, or interfere with your work, sleep, or recreation? What if you’re feeling fatigue or worthlessness, or experiencing weight changes along with your sadness? You may be experiencing major depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 17 million adult Americans suffer from depression during any 1-year period. Depression is a real illness and carries with it a high cost in terms of relationship problems, family suffering and lost work productivity. Yet, depression is a highly treatable illness. If you are experiencing depression, there are many resources that can help.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Courtney Stephens
  • Director Sharon Colman Graham
  • Composer Peter Gosling
  • Script Editor Addison Anderson
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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