A melancholic idealist will typically have a strong sense of being ‘different’ from the majority of people. Both cholerics and melancholics are supposedly less common than phlegmatics and sanguines, yet while cholerics tend to see themselves as superior to the herd, melancholics are usually more self-effacing – interpreting their own differences as faults or flaws.
A melancholic might wonder why he is not more like others, or how to be more like others; yet the details of the differences are quite complicated.
When I was younger I wondered why I didn’t like going out to pubs and clubs with my friends. For some reason the thought of going to such venues for no clear purpose other than to socialise filled me with a general sense of anxiety and fatigue. I don’t know if my friends understood why I hated to go out – I certainly didn’t understand. But from a melancholic perspective it begins to make sense.
Firstly, melancholics do not react strongly to stimuli, but what reactions they have are very enduring. What this means in the context of the above example is that I was never particularly excited by the positive aspects of going out drinking. I liked drinking, I liked socialising, but I wasn’t as excited by these prospects as a sanguine or a choleric might be, with their highly reactive temperaments.
And if the positive aspects of going out drinking were not especially salient, the negative aspects were almost overwhelming. Thanks to the melancholic’s enduring impressions, the thought of going out drinking and socialising would immediately bring to mind a (short) lifetime’s catalog of bad and potentially bad, awkward, and dissatisfying experiences, as if to offer a brief reminder of all the things that might go wrong.
Like the melancholic, phlegmatics do not react strongly to stimuli. However, phlegmatics do not have long-lasting impressions either. A phlegmatic might be happy to go out drinking if everyone else is as well. They won’t be put off by an unending stream of bad memories and cautionary tales.
Secondly, the melancholic’s onslaught of mental warnings, bad memories, and careful catastrophising translates almost immediately into fatigue. It is mentally exhausting to have one’s mind suddenly produce a variety of unwanted scenarios without any obvious solution. This mental exhaustion crushes whatever slim enthusiasm or motivation might have remained, and exacerbates the intensity of whatever worries seem most realistic.
Nonetheless, it is hard to avoid the all-encompassing pressure to go out, relax, have fun, and socialise, even if you are temperamentally unsuited to all of the above. A melancholic may be tempted to conclude that with sufficient effort they too can – and therefore should – take part in these hallowed social conventions.
But any genuinely self-respecting answer ought to take into account the peculiarities of the melancholic temperament. We don’t expect sanguines to enjoy endless hours sitting and reading or just thinking to themselves, nor should we expect ourselves to act dramatically against our temperament for the sake of fitting in.
Perhaps the key point – and one I neglected for years – is that it is fundamentally unreasonable to force yourself to do something that other temperaments do for sheer enjoyment. What a melancholic really needs is not additional effort but greater motivation – that is, a purpose more motivating than drunken socialising to loud music.
Whatever the circumstance, if the purpose is supposed to be ‘enjoyment’ but it feels more like wearying obligation, then perhaps the problem is that it’s simply not enjoyable enough?
The flip-side of the melancholic’s seemingly unhappy nature is that the ideals which motivate us, the things we really do enjoy, can be ecstatic. It just happens that these ideals and sources of enjoyment are not shared by the loud majority.
In the end, that’s all there is to it. It takes more to motivate us because we want more out of life; not more quantity, but more quality. Not more noise, but a more pure note. We want to be inspired and moved, and it just happens that mainstream culture and society rarely achieve this.