Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

by Eric G. Wilson

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Overview

We are addicted to happiness. More than any other generation, Americans today believe in the power of positive thinking. But who says we're supposed to be happy? In Against Happiness, the scholar Eric G. Wilson argues that melancholia is necessary to any thriving culture, that it is the muse of great literature, painting, music, and innovation—and that it is the force underlying original insights.

So enough Prozac-ing of our brains. Let's embrace our depressive side as the wellspring of creativity. It's time to throw off the shackles of positivity and relish the blues thatmake us human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374531669
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/20/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 586,429
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 4.98(h) x 0.48(d)

About the Author

Eric G. Wilson is Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is the author of five books on the relationship between literature and psychology.

Read an Excerpt

Against Happiness
In Praise of Melancholy


By Wilson, Eric G.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright © 2008 Wilson, Eric G.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374240660


Introduction
Ours are ominous times. Each nervous glance portends some potential disaster. Paranoia most mornings shocks us to wakefulness, and we totter out under the ghostly sun. At night fear agitates the darkness. Dreams of empty streets flitter through our fitful heads. Enduring these omens, as vague and elusive as the obscure horror they suggest, we strain to think of exactly what scares us. Our minds run over a daunting litany of global problems. We hope with our listing to find a meaning, a clue to our unease.
We mentally scan the scene. We are on the verge of eroding away our ozone layer. Even as I write, this erosion is causing melting of the polar ice cap. Within decades we could face major oceanic flooding. Even our greatest skyscrapers, yearning heavenward, could soon be devoured by indifferent waves. We are also close to annihilating hundreds of exquisite animals. These beasts—white rhinos and Sumatran tigers and California condors—have been in the making for millions of years. Within almost a human lifetime our disregard for nature has put these sublime creatures almost into extinction. Soon our forests will be empty of colorful torsos and exotic wings. These formerly teeming groves will be asbland as pavement. Moreover, we now find ourselves on the verge of a new cold war. Nuclear warheads before long will be on the rise again. The fears of the middle of the last century will return. We’ll wonder: Will this year be the last that humans breathe and walk on this time-rending earth?
I can now add another threat, perhaps as dangerous as the most apocalyptic of concerns. We are possibly not far away from eradicating a major cultural force, a serious inspiration to invention, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are wantonly hankering to rid the world of numerous ideas and visions, multitudinous innovations and meditations. We are right at this moment annihilating melancholia.
We wonder if the wide array of antidepressants will one day make sweet sorrow a thing of the past. We wonder if soon enough every single American will be happy. We wonder if we will become a society of self-satisfied smiles. Treacly expressions will be painted on our faces as we parade through the pastel aisles. Bedazzling neon will spotlight our way.
What is behind this desire to purge sadness from our lives, especially in America, the land of splendid dreams and wild success? Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, for the innocuous smile? What fosters this desperate contentment?
These questions of course cut against the grain of what most Americans claim to think. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least happy. The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel sort of science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are now learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy and on why we are happy. The self-help press fills the shelves with step-by-step plans for worldly satisfaction. Everywhere I see advertisements offering even more happiness, happiness on land or by sea, in a car or under the stars. And as I have already noted, doctors now offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly, perhaps more than ever before, an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.
Surely all this happiness can’t be for real. How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe—not only the collective and apocalyptic ills just mentioned but also those particular irritations that bedevil our everyday existences, those money issues and marital spats, those stifling vocations and lonely dawns? Are we to believe that four out of every five Americans can be content amid the general woe? Are some people lying, or are they simply afraid to be honest in a culture in which the status quo is nothing short of manic bliss? Aren’t we suspicious of this statistic? Aren’t we further troubled by our culture’s overemphasis on happiness? Don’t we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior?
I for one am afraid that our American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am wary in the face of this possibility: to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful over our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia from the system. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?
I want to get to the bottom of these fears, to see if they’re legitimate or just neurotic grumblings. My feeling right now is that they are valid. This sense grows out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to entertain a craven disregard for the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ongoing ignorance of life’s enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebulliance. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates in the end that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.
Let me be clear. I’m right now thinking only of this specific American type of happiness. I’m not questioning joy in general. For instance, I’m not challenging that unbearable exuberance that suddenly emerges from long suffering. I’m not troubled by that hard-earned tranquillity that comes from long meditation on the world’s sorrows. I’m not criticizing that slow-burning bliss that issues from a life spent helping those that hurt.
Likewise, I’d like to be clear about this: I don’t want to romanticize clinical depression. I realize that there are many lost souls out there who require medication to keep from killing themselves or harming their friends and families. I don’t want to question the pharmaceutical therapies of the seriously depressed. Not only am I not qualified to do this (I’m not a psychotherapist marshaling evidence, but a literary humanist searching for a deeper life), I’m also not willing to argue against medications that simply make existence bearable for so many with biochemical disorders.
I do, however, wonder why so many people experiencing melancholia are now taking pills meant simply to ease the pain, to turn scowls once more into smiles. Of course there is a fine line between what I’m calling melancholia and what society calls depression. In my mind, what separates the two is degree of activity. Both forms are more or less chronic sadness that leads to ongoing unease with how things are—persistent feelings that the world as it is is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil. Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia (in my eyes) generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.
Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treat melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness—happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment. Of course the question immediately arises: Who wouldn’t question this apparently hollow form of American happiness? Aren’t all of us late at night, when we’re honest with ourselves, opposed to shallow happiness? Most likely we are, but isn’t it possible that many of us fall into superficiality without knowing it? Aren’t some of us so smitten with the American dream that we have become brainwashed into believing that our sole purpose on this earth is to be happy? Doesn’t this unwitting affection for happiness over sadness lead us to a one-sided life, to bliss without discomfort, bright noon with no night?
My sense is that most of us have been duped by the American craze for happiness. We might think that we’re leading a truly honest existence, one attuned to vivid realities and blooded hearts, when we’re really just behaving as predictably and artificially as robots, falling easily into well-worn “happy” behaviors, into the conventions of contentment, into obvious grins. Deceived, we miss out on the great interplay of the living cosmos, its luminous gloom, its terrible beauty.
The American dream might be a nightmare. What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins. Our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies—for all those curious thrushes moving among autumn’s brownish indolence, for those blue dahlias seemingly hollowed with sorrow, for all those gloomy souls who long for clouds above high windows. I’d hate for us to awaken one morning and regret what we’ve done in the name of untroubled enjoyment. I’d hate for us to crawl out of our beds and walk out into a country denuded of gorgeous lonely roads and the grandeur of desolate hotels, of half-cracked geniuses and their frantic poems. I’d hate for us to come to consciousness when it’s too late to live.  Excerpted from Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson. Copyright © 2008 by Eric G. Wilson. Published in January 2008 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Continues...

Excerpted from Against Happiness by Wilson, Eric G. Copyright © 2008 by Wilson, Eric G.. Excerpted by permission.
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Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I haven't read the whole book but giving me a short glimpse of it already made me realize one useful and life-changing-perspective and that is, 'melancholy should not be taken as a negative force but rather a driving force in achieving a better life!' It is not embarrassing to admit that you are sad your whole life! The more you admit to everyone around you that you are a sentimental person, the more that these people will understand who you are and accept you as that kind of person. This book is really inspiring and I recommend this to all people out there who experiences sadness in their lives.
msbaba on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G. Wilson is brilliant in parts, but seriously flawed.This is a small book with a simple thesis: the experience of melancholy is an essential part of the human condition¿when it occurs, we should embrace it, not repress it. Wilson claims that if you eliminate melancholia either through medications (like Prozac), or through a forceful cultural bias toward perpetual happiness such as currently exists in America, then life ceases to be authentic, and society fails.Much of the book is one long rant against a contemporary American culture that requires artificial happiness at all times. Wilson shows that our melancholic side is absolutely essential. He insists that melancholy is necessary to connect us to our fundamental self. He claims that to reject melancholy is to reject life. Wilson writes: ¿A person seeking sleek comfort in this mysteriously mottled world¿where love is always edged with resentment and baseness beds with grace¿is necessarily required to perceive only small parts of the planet, those parts that fit into his preconceived mental grids¿ But some people strain all the time to break through their mental manacles, to cleanse the portals of their perceptions, and to see the universe as an ungraspable riddle, gorgeous and gross. Happy types, those Americans bent only on happiness and afraid of sadness, tend to forgo this labor. They sit safe in their cages. The sad ones, dissatisfied with the status quo, are more likely to beat against the bars¿ (p. 24). [Note: If you found this quote somewhat dense and difficult, be forewarned: this type of prose is typical of the entire volume. Although some of Wilson¿s writing is dynamic, rich, and lyrical, I often found it also turgid and unnecessarily arcane.]Wilson goes on to argue that sadness is ¿the enabler of joy,¿ and that the ¿true path to ecstatic joy is through acute melancholia.¿ You can¿t have one end of the continuum without the other. Thus, people who strive for happiness at all times limit their capacity for joy.So far so good¿I truly welcomed, enjoyed, and agreed with Wilson¿s point of view throughout the first half of the text. But in the second half of the book, I was shocked to see the author dangerously overstepping the boundaries of his academic credentials and making serious mistakes¿here, Wilson fails me, and thus my overall rating for his book slips significantly.In the second half of the book, Wilson argues that the experience of normal melancholia makes us creative. To back up his arguments about the connection between melancholia and creativity, the author cites examples using a number of very famous historic and contemporary creative geniuses¿artists, he suggests, who derived their creative power from their frequent bouts of melancholia. But that is precisely where his arguments fall. Virtually all the creative geniuses that he cites as examples to support his claims about the connection between normal melancholy and creativity were, in fact, at the far extremes of the continuum, not in the middle. These artistic geniuses suffered either from bouts of deep clinical depression, or they were manic-depressives who experienced both depressions and mania. It is important to note that the author is a professor of English at Wake Forest University. He is not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but a ¿literary humanist searching for a deeper life.¿ He makes it clear in the beginning of the book that this work is about the normal mood state of melancholia. He sets out to focus on the middle of the continuum, with happiness on one side, and melancholy on the other. He claims that this book is not about the aberrant extremes of the continuum¿the ends where melancholia slips into major depression, and happiness soars into mania. Yet he supports his ideas about normal melancholy giving rise to creativity using examples about artistic geniuses who either suffered from clinical depression or manic-depressive illness
sdho on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The introduction and first chapter of this book are really quite excellent, but it's just downhill from there. In the heart of the book, Wilson spends very little time talking about what he introduces in the beginning -- Americanized pseudo-happiness. Instead, it's just a pretentious admiration of as many melancholy-inspired artists as he can think of. The book is short, but still painful to get through. Do not recommend.
amslvr1 More than 1 year ago
DEFINITELY WORTH IT! Another phenomenal read. I read more or less for my own work. I related to a lot of the contents within. There were some points that I may have questioned or didn't fully agree with, but for the most part the concepts are valid. I loved the way he is able to write about the topic and I have most definitely quoted him in some of my works. Even if you don't share the same view points this is a great book to dive in to in any case. The perspective is interesting and you can definitely learn some things.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A quick but thorough examination of polar opposites of emotions, Wilson delves deeply not simply into feeling sad, but, by the end of the novel, into something much more transcendent. This novel examines living completely, it exists to defend the beautiful dual nature of humanity, the opposite and extreme emotions that exist so separate from each other, yet are incomprehensibly similar. The novel carefully glamorizes the idea of being able to experience both sides of life, whether the gloomy melancholic walk on a chilly autumn day, or the gleeful joy of a sunny outdoor wedding. Excellent read, and a fresh look on what it means to be alive.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although I found the premise appealing, overall, the book was no good. I am a fan of argumentative discourses, and this seemed to fit in that category- but it isn't. The author repeats the same sentences multiple times, but not to reiterate a point, just to fill space. There was research done, but it's just thrown in all hodgepodge unconnected from the rest of the "argument" in the chapter.
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
In this candid and unconventional book, English professor and humanist Eric G. Wilson positions himself as melancholy's champion. He does everything but wave gloomy pom-poms as he extols its role in creativity and invention. As counterintuitive and loopy as his view may seem, Wilson makes a strong, lucid case for feeling glum. Indeed, reading Wilson's book may inspire you trade in your grin for a wholehearted frown. If you seek a change from the deluge of cheery self-help tomes, or if you want to expand your outlook, then step out of the sunshine and into the shadows with this iconoclastic book. Although Wilson sometimes rambles or digresses in making his argument, getAbstract finds that his book thoughtfully affirms the power of negative thinking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
What seemed to be an outstanding opportunity to explore a topic of great importance and interest turned out to be a self-indulgent rant. This read was disappointing on many different fronts most especially because of the anger that seemed to exude from the author...sad is one thing, angry/chip on the shoulder is quite another and this book did not bother drawing those lines. The book fails to speak directly to a very riveting topic and ultimately provides the reader not with new insights into the subject but with information about a very self important author. Returning ''Against Happiness' is going to make this melancholy reader very happy indeed.