How To Do Life

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In Praise of Serious People

Melancholics are underappreciated

We like happy people. They boost our mood and don’t burden us with their issues.

But serious people may be worth more of our time.

True, serious folks are unlikely to make us laugh but also are unlikely to be annoying like perky types can be. They’re more likely to talk about things more substantive than sports, pop culture, and their vacation.

Serious people may be more likely to make a difference in the world. Happy people are more likely to feel things are pretty good as they are whereas sober types may be more in touch with what’s wrong and thus acquire the drive to improve things. Perhaps that’s why many world-changing people were melancholic: from Martin Luther to John Adams to Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill to Michel Foucault, also Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, William and Henry James, John D. Rockefeller, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, Agatha Christie, Bob Dylan, even Oprah.

Keeping a handle on it

Having a sober personality may feel okay if that’s who you naturally are, and it can benefit friends, family, and society. But it can also devolve into paralytic depression in which the person literally or figuratively can’t get out of bed.

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So beware of taking too deep a dive. Yes, sometimes that’s the disequilibrium necessary to motivate a person to make great changes but not always. If you think it’s not worth heading deeper into solemnity, consider making a list of all the good in your life and in the world and spending a little more time with upbeat sorts.

If you’re dealing with a serious person

Often, melancholy types don’t want to be cheered up, let alone being told things like, “Lighten up. It’s not so bad.” That can feel like devaluing the person’s essence.

Sure, you might try sprinkling a bit of your sprightliness over their sober pate to see how they react but don’t push it. Realize that being chipper is not an intrinsic good but a social norm that we in the U.S. have chosen to adopt. Indeed many Europeans make fun of Americans’ penchant for perkiness.

The broader issue

Today’s standard American claims to celebrate diversity but really is quite intolerant of people whose behavior deviates even moderately from that U.S. norm: cheery, mildly self-effacing, and politically correct. We all might be wise to be more tolerant of well-intentioned deviations from the norm in others and in ourselves.

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's  bio is on Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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