Sadness as a virtue: Why we should allow ourselves some melancholy

As we enter the apex of what many would regard as the happiest of all earth’s seasons, I want to take some time to write about sadness. As the earth becomes green and vibrant, I’ve found myself falling into feelings of gloom and melancholy usually reserved for dreary winter days.

Once upon a time these sensations would have been all-consuming. Many times over the course of my first year at St. Olaf do I distinctly remember spending weeks on end languishing in states of depression. It seemed, at the time, my depressed outlook on life would never end. I drifted through the quad and Buntrock Commons, headphones in, wallowing in my sense of alienation as I struggled to build and define myself as a college student.

Part of the reason these feelings felt so pervasive was because I perceived them as unnatural. I believed people’s natural constitution bent toward happiness, or at least toward contentment. So I caught myself in a pitiful cycle of entering sadness, feeling I was less-than-human for it and then collapsing deeper into personal grief. My sadness wasn’t caused by an estrangement between me and the world, but rather an estrangement between me and my self. My enrollment in the class “Kierkegaard and Existentialism” at the time probably didn’t help my thought processes much.

Time has helped me realize that sadness is not something that should be seen as unnatural. Rather, sadness is one of the most natural and fundamental of all human emotions. In a sense it is sadness that affirms our experience of all other affections. It confirms the fact that you have felt something so deeply that you express a sense of heartache over its loss, something that now exists only as memory. Sadness is, in essence, the consequence of living a meaningful life.

This understanding builds the foundation for recognizing sadness as a virtue. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “To possess a virtue is to be a certain sort of person with a certain complex mindset. A significant aspect of this mindset is the wholehearted acceptance of a distinctive range of considerations as reasons for action.”. To practice sadness as a virtue, one must fully understand the importance of feeling and expressing sadness and their alternative options. Knowing you could respond to sadness-causing experiences with empty joy or simple resignation, and then choosing to feel and express sadness, is the mark of a virtuous person.

I don’t think I’m perfectly virtuous when it comes to practicing sadness. In fact, I still hesitate to accept the notion of sadness as a practice. It would seem to lead to a life full of melancholy, romanticized in films and literature but impractical in a constant world of noise and busyness.

Maybe that’s why I’m trying to advocate for sadness here. I find that when I embrace my sadness and express it in positive ways, through conversations with my dad, journal entries or tearful walks in the woods, I’m able to put a pause on the chaos of life. By sinking into sadness, I float down, away from an external world that is constantly pestering me for my attention and toward a truer sense of my self.

In this way sadness is a practice. It is a practice of self-realization, of coming to better know all parts of yourself, all corners of your heart. Without being able to express sadness, I feel that I wouldn’t be able to really express any feelings at all. And since sadness is as natural a part of the human condition as feelings of joy and of fear, why shouldn’t I embrace it with open arms? Sadness will always persist, it just comes down to whether we choose to deny it or accept it.     

I’ll accept my sadness and all the long conversations, pages of my journals and tears that come along with it.

Kierkegaard would agree. “My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have ever known; what wonder, then, that I love her in return.”

Jacob Maranda ’22 is from Rock Island, IL. His majors are economics and philosophy.