Melancholy: Definition, Temperament & Personality Traits

Instructor: Amy Messex

Amy has a master's degree in social work (MSW) and has taught social work theory and practice at the University level.

Learn about the interesting history of melancholy and explore its current meaning in psychology. Find out what personality traits are associated with melancholy and the melancholic temperament.

Melancholia: One of the Four Temperaments

Imagine that you're feeling depressed, and go to the doctor for help. After an examination, the doctor nods wisely and gives you the diagnosis: 'Well, of course you're depressed - your body is filled with black bile!' While it's probably safe to say that a diagnosis like that wouldn't be very likely to happen these days, in ancient times your doctor might have said exactly that.

Early forefathers of medicine like Hippocrates (460-370 BCE) and Galen (130-200 CE) believed that our temperaments were determined by the amount of specific fluids inside our bodies, substances known as the 'four humors'. These early thinkers believed the four humors were phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. And if you had too much black bile, you were likely to have the 'melancholia' temperament, otherwise known as melancholy. In fact, that idea is where the word melancholy originated--from the Greek word melankholia, a combination of 'melas' meaning black, and 'khole' meaning bile.

The other temperaments in this philosophy included 'sanguine' (optimistic), 'phlegmatic' (relaxed) and 'choleric' (irritable). These other temperaments were also thought to be caused by fluids, such as 'choleric' people having too much yellow bile in their system. Some early philosophers tried to locate the source of yellow and black bile in the bodies of animals but never discovered it. The ancient physicians generally prescribed dietary changes to try to adjust these fluids in people, usually without much luck.

Melancholy Traits

Temperament refers to the set of personality traits that we are born with and can't change. Melancholy, in this ancient sense, referred to the temperament of someone who was sensitive, sad, paranoid, critical and socially withdrawn. Sometimes the term was also used to describe people having major mental breakdowns and delusional behavior.

Engraving of the four temperaments by Thomas Holloway
engraving of the four temperaments

Melancholy in Modern Times

This way of thinking about temperament and depression lasted many centuries, and was discussed at great length in Robert Burton's 1671 book The Anatomy of Melancholy. Shakespeare famously had his characters talk about many different types of melancholy in his play 'As You Like It.'

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