A Desire for Sadness: On the Romanticization and Presumed Connection Between Creativity and Mental Illness

A Desire for Sadness: On the Romanticization and Presumed Connection Between Creativity and Mental Illness
Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash

Warning: Mention of self–harm, mental illness, suicide, and other topics related to depression and mental health.

Sadness has been a part of the human experience since the beginning of time. Tragic heroes (see Achilles) and doomed lovers (see Eurydice and Orpheus) are deeply abound in ancient myths and legends. For it has been portrayed as a thing of beauty, a source of inspiration, and even a sign of moral superiority in art and literature. Poets and artists celebrated the beauty of sadness and despair during the Romantic period, which was marked by a fascination with melancholy. This movement emphasised intense emotions, particularly those associated with loss and heartbreak, as a means of transcending the mundane and connecting with the sublime.

Still, sadness, while being a crucial human’s emotion, if prolonged, can easily lead to feelings of gloom and depression. This article will attempt to uncover the reasons behind the fascination of melancholy as well as offer a counterview on why it can be harmful to individuals who practise such behaviour.

Sadness as a Beautiful Sight to Behold

“I don't do anything with my life except romanticize and decay with indecision.”
– Allen Ginsberg

The idea of suffering has been made magical. And it has been taken to an extreme in modern times, with some individuals treating it as otherworldly or even desirable. The glamorization of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, has become prevalent in pop culture, with celebrities and influencers often portraying themselves as tortured souls.

The 2014 Tumblr girls aesthetic, a subculture of teenage girls who gained popularity on the social media platform Tumblr, was also notorious for the glorification of a range of societal issues such as substance abuse, body image and mental health issues. Many of them shared quotes, images, and stories about their experiences with mental illness, and depression was often portrayed as a desirable and glamorous state of being.

There is a pervasive misconception that in order to be deep and introspective, one must be steeped in sadness. Pessimism is often equated with enlightenment, with the belief that by seeing the world's darker side, one has a more profound understanding of reality. While it is true that negative experiences can lead to personal growth and introspection, it is not necessary to experience constant suffering to achieve depth of thought.

Some of the world's greatest philosophers and thinkers, such as Aristotle, Confucius, and Socrates, did not have histories of depression or mental illness. Rather, they gained their insights through rigorous study, reflection, and contemplation. Additionally, there are many individuals who have experienced great joy and positivity in their lives and still managed to achieve deep insights and understandings of the world. For example, the writer and philosopher Voltaire, known for his wit and satire, was known for his lighthearted demeanour and love of life.

Choosing Melancholy

“I am the hurting kind. I keep searching for proof.”
– Ada Limón

There's comfort in familiarity, even if it's a bad habit you need to break. When one is depressed, sadness becomes a constant, while happiness becomes much more difficult to come by. Depressed people are more familiar with sadness, so they are more motivated to experience it as a way of reaffirming who they are. (Arens & Stangier, 2020)

The reason behind this lies in the concept of emotional regulation. Emotional regulation refers to the process by which individuals manage and modulate their emotional experiences, responses, and expressions. Research has shown that individuals with depression tend to have a more difficult time regulating their emotions and may experience greater intensity and duration of negative emotions such as sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness. (Millgram et. al., 2015)

As a result, depressed individuals may become more familiar with these negative emotions and find comfort in their predictability and familiarity. For example, a person who is struggling with depression may find themselves listening to sad music for hours on end, even though they know it only exacerbates their negative emotional state. However, the familiarity and predictability of the sadness offered by the music may be comforting in the moment, even if it ultimately reinforces the negative emotional cycle.

Furthermore, if a person has been subjected to a series of negative events or failures in their life, they may develop a sense of learned helplessness, or the belief that they are powerless to change their circumstances. This can result in feelings of resignation and hopelessness, which can reinforce depressive symptoms. The learned helplessness can contribute to the romanticization of mental illness, as individuals may come to view their sadness and hopelessness as an integral part of their identity.

The Tortured, Mad, and Tragic Artist

“Perhaps it's good for one to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he's happy?
– Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay

The image of the tortured artist, struggling with their inner demons and channeling their pain into their work, is a familiar one. From Van Gogh's melancholic paintings to Sylvia Plath's haunting poetry, there is a pervasive idea that creativity is born from suffering, and that great art can only be produced by those who have experienced deep pain and sadness. The idea of the "tortured artist" has become a cultural trope, a romantic ideal that suggests that great art can only come from great suffering.

This sense of romantic melancholy seems to stem, in part, from the attempt to find some correspondence between reality and the kind of idealised life the romantics espoused. In the melancholic’s constant longing for something inexpressible and unattainable, many would find the seeds of that creative yearning generally associated with great artists of every kind.

In Vincent van Gogh, it was the range of mental health problems throughout his life, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Despite his struggles, van Gogh produced some of the most celebrated works of art in history, including "The Starry Night" and two "Sunflowers" series. His art has been interpreted as a reflection of his inner turmoil, and his life has become a symbol of the tortured artist archetype.

The Starry Night (Van Gogh, 1889)
Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (Van Gogh, 1888)

Similarly, Sylvia Plath is often cited as an example of the link between depression and creativity. The American poet and novelist suffered from depression throughout her life and ultimately took her own life at the age of 30. Her work, including the novel "The Bell Jar" and the poem "Daddy," has been hailed as a powerful expression of her emotional turmoil, and her legacy as a literary figure is often linked to her struggles with mental illness.

Howbeit, relying on sadness as a source of inspiration can limit an artist's ability to explore other emotions and experiences. This can lead to repetitive and stagnant work that lacks diversity and depth.


Some will say that, ultimately, the fascination with sadness reflects a deeper human need to make sense of our emotions and to find meaning in our lives. Some believe that the melancholy, more or less, serves as a catharsis release from the suffering weight borne in daily life while argue that the romanticisation of such feelings may be viewed as an unhealthy obsession needed to overcome. In the end, to what extent will sadness become the monster murking in the shadow, and thereby where is the line that should not be crossed, is up for open interpretation.


Arens, E. A., & Stangier, U. (2020). Sad as a Matter of Evidence: The Desire for Self-Verification Motivates the Pursuit of Sadness in Clinical Depression. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 238. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00238

Millgram, Y., Joormann, J., Huppert, J. D., & Tamir, M. (2015). Sad as a Matter of Choice? Emotion-Regulation Goals in Depression. Psychological Science, 26(8), 1216–1228. doi:10.1177/0956797615583295

Writer: Châu Quế Chi - an Electrical Engineering major with a fondness for poetry and indie music. In her free time, Chi likes challenging social norms and finding beauty in the unconventional. She firmly believes that men with long hair are hot, as do all women.