Absence of melancholy

The muted joy of autumn melancholy: who can resist the temptation to be lyrical in such a season? By all accounts melancholy is the feeling you get in the event of loss or absence, as in the passing of summer.

Strip of 11 pictures of autumn leaves

Melancholy is also absent from classifications of mood and emotion as devised by experimental psychologists. For example it doesn’t appear on the following diagram devised by James Russell and Geraldine Pratt in a much cited paper of 1980 charting people’s emotional responses (the adjectives people use) in relation to a range of physical spaces.

The horizontal axis indicates pleasure, with greater pleasure to the right and displeasure to the left. The vertical axis indicates intensity, with high intensity at the top. In fact their argument is that emotion or human “core affect” is (simply) the experience of pleasure and intensity in different degrees.

Screen Shot 2013-10-05 at 15.37.13

It’s the wealth of human language, culture, narrative, reflection, and the situation of the person with the feeling that positions any particular pleasure-displeasure-intensity (the core affect) as the experience of a particular emotion. Our whole cognitive apparatus kicks in to account for our feelings, and some people for some of the time are better at it than others.

On the one hand the diagram is reductive, in turning the whole complex of human feelings to a couple of linear scales. On the other hand it amplifies the role of culture and society in the way we give labels to emotions, recognise their existence, create our emotional categories, and even create feelings.

This diagram also has therapeutic implications. Presumably it’s approximate, but it indicates that one emotion could easily be mistaken for another. If the situation you are in makes you feel destitute and insignificant then it could just be a case of mislabelling your current condition. You may just be bored for example: ie experiencing low-intensity displeasure.

On being bored

On the other hand the schema could indicate that boredom is actually a profound and difficult condition, comparable to other more complicated feelings.

The diagram also offers solutions. To get out of the mood you are in crank up the pleasure element, or the intensity, though this can lead to other extremes, not least fright, and the means of shifting your feelings along the axes can themselves have long-term negative effects, such as addiction etc.

The diagram leaves out other mood states, such as those proposed in the PANAS (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule) schema: “positive” moods such as being interested, enthusiastic, inspired, excited, strong, proud, alert, determined, and attentive.

On the “negative” PANAS scale are moods such as scared, nervous, upset, distressed, guilty, irritable, hostile, ashamed, jittery, and afraid. The diagram leaves out guilt.

Considering that the diagram is ostensibly about how people feel in spaces, scholars who identify the importance of so-called non-places, might expect to see some prominence given to guilt, or at least Marc Auge’s observation that due to the preponderance of official signage, some places put us in the position of feeling guilty even if we have not transgressed.

Melancholy and movement

These emotional schemas also steer clear of melancholy, arguably the preserve of art and culture. Melancholy seems to function as a dynamic emotion: something you dip into and out of. Pilgrims venture into melancholy and emerge renewed, so long as they are able. This is a bit like the pilgrim’s emergence from, or evasion of, the Slough of Despair in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s also the Psalmist’s walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Perhaps melancholy is the emotion that also meanders and lingers across Russell and Pratt’s diagram.

It’s not just a raw mood state that provides the melancholic effect, but the excursion into, and return from, such experiences. In any case, the concept of melancholy provides a useful lens through which to view so many cultural forms … including space


  • Wilhelm Wundt introduced the core affect idea in his seminal book of 1897. He had a third dimension that contemporary theorists think of in terms of attention. It matters whether you are attending to the feeling or if it’s somehow in the background of our awareness, like a mood.
  • I just attended the interesting conference Cinematic Urban Geographies http://cinematicbattersea.blogspot.co.uk/ at which I received some helpful feedback on the theme of melancholy.
  • Melancholy is much more complicated than sadness or depression; it belongs in the cultural sphere; it’s a “meta-mood”; it involves transitions; it involves mobility; in so far as distributed digital media circulate (co-created) films, music, poetry, etc they are complicit in the formation of the mood, ambience, atmosphere of a place; melancholy provides a useful lens for viewing cinema, as well as digital media.
  • See other posts: Melancholy urbanism, The melancholy medium, and As the mood takes you.
  • See Evolving Thoughts blog on Are emotion 2D? by John Wilkins.


  • Russell, J. 2003. Core affect and the psychological construction of emotion. Psychological Review, (110) 1, 145-172.
  • Russell, J. 2009. Emotion, core affect, and psychological construction. Cognition and Emotion, (23) 7, 1259-1283.
  • Russell, J., and G. Pratt. 1980. A Description of the Affective Quality Attributed to Environments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (38) 2, 311-322.
  • Watson, David, Lee Anna Clark, and Auke Tellegen. 1988. Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (54) 6, 1063–1070.
  • Wundt, Wilhelm. 1897. Outlines of Psychology. Trans. C. H. Judd. Leipzig: W. Engelmann.

Faun against pine trees in a clearing


  1. There is something that makes many of us believe that boredom and melancholia are closely related or even the same because it is usual to feel (or at least think we do) melancholic, when we go through phases of boredom. But we mainly feel melancholic when we are going through a very sad and emotional situation for a long time, which is more intense and makes us more conscious and certain of our own feelings. To my opinion, the factor that makes the difference is the existence of confusion and emptiness that often accompany boredom. Nonetheless, at moments of boredom it is common to go through nostalgic, pleasant or intense moments(like the ones presented on the upper horizontal axis), which may cause melancholia as well. I also believe that something that causes melancholia is the desire to feel in a certain way but not being able to do so because of the circumstances, hence we might fall in this feeling of melancholia. So there is a very thin line between boredom and melancholia and it is not easy to divide these two into different categories of emotions as they are likely to concur or the one can be a result of the former.

    1. Thanks for the helpful insight Marina. Here’s an interesting piece on the “misidentification” of emotion: http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/beginning-psychology/s14-01-the-experience-of-emotion.html.

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