The melancholic temperament is possibly the most misunderstood temperament to come from ancient Greece. Even today most people have a very limited picture of this type in their minds. The melancholic temperament is actually thought to be the most complex of all four temperaments. It is so much more than the stereotype of the gloomy, depressed, and sickly person we associate with the word "melancholy."
The melancholic temperament is one of the four temperaments identified by Hippocrates. His Humoral theory asserts that all illnesses, temperaments, personality traits, and even physical appearance can be linked to four humors in the body: black bile for melancholic types, yellow bile for choleric types, phlegm for phlegmatic types, and blood for sanguine types.
Temperament and personality are often used interchangeably, but they mean different things. Psychology suggests that personality is formed by a combination of nature and nurture. Temperament, however, is purely biological in nature. Most experts believe people are born with their temperament, and it is unchangeable.
People with a melancholic temperament are described as efficient, analytical, detail-oriented, practical, self-reliant, dependable, and realistic. These individuals tend to be more reflective and philosophical in nature, and they generally have a more pessimistic view of life. They may also be prone to moodiness with bouts of depression, which may lead them to withdraw. People with melancholic temperaments are also patient, sensitive, empathetic, and studious.
An excellent example of the melancholic temperament is Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock is always described as studious, analytical, efficient, and detail-oriented. He is prone to mood extremes and bouts of depression, yet he also has a hidden sensitive, empathetic nature that he only shows to his companion, Dr. Watson.
In ancient Greece, the melancholic temperament, believed to be caused by too much black bile, was thought of as the "most problematic" temperament. This was because it was the opposite of the ideal sanguine temperament, and because the melancholic individuals were thought to be the most unhealthy of the four types.
Not much has changed in regards to how society thinks of the melancholic temperament. In today's terminology, the melancholic temperament describes the introverts, the "bookish nerds", and the sensitive, empathetic feelers. Modern society still tends to prefer and be built for the extroverts, which, in Hippocrates' Humoral theory would describe the sanguine temperament.
People may assume that a melancholic temperament and the depressive disorder melancholia or melancholic depression — are subtype of major depressive disorder — are the same thing. That is inaccurate. Melancholic depression is a severe clinical mental health condition that includes symptoms like feeling depressed, very little emotional expression, strong feelings of hopelessness and guilt, and thoughts of suicide. Melancholic temperament is not related to the development of melancholic depression, and the melancholic temperament itself is not a mental health condition.
Despite what people thought in ancient Greece and even still think today, a melancholic temperament is not a bad thing, and it has several benefits. Those with a melancholic temperament are more creative than the other temperaments due to their emotionality. They are also task-oriented instead of people-oriented, which can make them efficient at any task. Melancholic people are also team players, rendering them well-suited to office or school group projects. They also tend to be excellent at problem-solving and predictive modeling.
Like all the other temperaments, the melancholic temperament does have its drawbacks. People with a melancholic temperament are more likely to have conditions like insomnia, depression, and anxiety, as well as chronic stress. Melancholic individuals are also more likely to overthink and become paralyzed by excessive self-reflection. Many of this temperament are perfectionists, a trait that can cause many of the above symptoms.
A few of the ways to balance the melancholic temperament for a better life that Hippocrates suggested still apply today. Melancholic people can become healthier and achieve a better life balance by exercising to release mood-boosting endorphins and get rid of nervous energy. They could also benefit from meditation and deep breathing relaxation exercises to combat stress and insomnia.
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