Thursday, January 17, 2008

Happiness and its enemies

H L Mencken famously defined a Puritan as someone with a haunting fear that somewhere, someone might be happy. One wouldn't think that such a dour attitude would hold many adherents today, but as I described in my critique of Ronald Dworkin's book "Artificial Happiness", there are many people who see the spread of happiness as something to be feared and attacked.

One more voice against happiness, also with a book, is English professor Eric G Wilson, whose book "In Praise of Melancholy" is excerpted in the Chronicle Review:
Ours are ominous times. We are on the verge of eroding away our ozone layer. Within decades we could face major oceanic flooding. We are close to annihilating hundreds of exquisite animal species. Soon our forests will be as bland as pavement. Moreover, we now find ourselves on the verge of a new cold war.

But there is another threat, perhaps as dangerous: We are eradicating a major cultural force, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are annihilating melancholia.

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 pretty 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 science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

My first question upon reading this is "what is this guy smoking?" Perfect contentment? Does any sane person really think that we are on the verge of such a state? Even if you are willing to grant Wilson's fear even the slightest bit of truthfulness, it is a very strange kind of alarmism he is peddling. "The sky isn't falling!"

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, this desperate contentment?

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 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 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 concerned that 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 of our society's efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life's enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates 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.

Anyone who has any personal experience with depression could never write that happiness breeds blandness while sadness brings variety and color. The opposite is the case. One of the defining qualities of depression is that one's mental state is locked into a monotonous sameness of worry and despair, and is not capable of reacting appropriately to external stimulii with a range of emotional responses.

Wilson makes a token effort to differentiate between clinical depression and his preferred term melancholy, but only blurs the distinction later in the passage:

And I'm not romanticizing 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'm not questioning pharmaceutical therapies for the seriously depressed or simply to make existence bearable for so many with biochemical disorders.
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 continuing unease with how things are — persistent feelings that the world is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil.

So he's willing to condemn a person to a life of persistent sadness as long as it doesn't lead to total breakdown and suicide? That's big-hearted of him. But why would anyone take mental health advice from an English professor? Does anyone seriously believe that there is some magic barrier between melancholy and depression that keeps the former from falling into the latter? How much imagination does it take to see that persistent, low level sadness, left untreated, can lead to deeper sadness and finally clinical depression? Who is watching out for these troubled but romantic melancholics to make sure that they don't accidentally drop into depression?

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, when we're really just behaving as predictably and artificially as robots, falling easily into well-worn "happy" behaviors, into the conventions of contentment. Deceived, we miss out on the great interplay of the living cosmos, its luminous gloom, its terrible beauty.

Here Wilson tips us off to the agenda behind his worship of suffering. As I've pointed out on other occasions, such people worship suffering for aesthetic reasons. Note the use of the honest/artificial value judgment. Its about authenticity, that elusive chimera that every aesthete hunts with a passion, but it is a prey that always escapes the moment one thinks he's caught it.

Wilson goes on to tell the story of John Keats, his life of suffering, and of course the magnificent poetry that resulted from it all. But if one wishes others to suffer in order to enjoy the benefits that might accrue thereof, or begrudges another's happiness because it gives one no aesthetic pleasure to behold, is not one merely objectifying the other? Isn't that a particularly selfish and inhuman attitude?


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It is, of course, possible that he believes all that.

It is even more possible, based on my brush with Eng. Lit., that he doesn't.

There are waaay more English professors than anybody needs -- a serious market failure, I suppose -- and not nearly enough subjects for them to write seriously about.

Yet write they must.

So their is a segment of Eng. Lit. devoted to writing books, in the most elegant way one is capable of, to demonstrate something that everyone knows is nonsense. It is like synchronized swimming. All points are style points.

January 17, 2008 9:00 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

I think that some sorts of creativity may require a touch of sadness. For example, I'm happier now than when I was younger, but when I was younger I wrote lots of music and lyrics. That creativity seemed to have significantly abated with the sadness.

Also, it's really hard for me to imagine great blues artists being all happy when they wrote their tunes.

January 17, 2008 10:16 PM  
Blogger monix said...

It is difficult to make a judgement based on a review of an excerpt, but I didn't get a sense that Wilson was promoting depression. I thought that he was against complacency and mediocrity. If we were all satisfied with our lot, who would ever discover anything new?

January 18, 2008 5:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Professor Wilson's defence of melancholia seems to have made Duck very unhappy.

January 18, 2008 5:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

January 18, 2008 5:39 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Bret, borrow a copy of 'The Copulating Blues' from your friendly public library.

Somes blues are quite cheerful.

January 18, 2008 8:33 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


For starters the author is taking a hysterically alarmist tone about an imagined reality. To repeat my question, does anyone seriously think that we are on the verge of runaway happiness? But even if we are halfway there to acheiving that state, Wilson would have us believe that it is a looming disaster of epic proportions.

Monix how else would you describe what Wilson calls melancholy but low level depression? Here's another amateur playing mental health advisor telling people with low level depression not to seek treatment, but to enjoy the "terrifying beauty" of their condition. He's another quack moralizing against the mental health industry.

As someone who has suffered from low level, and not so low level depression, his quackery is as easy for me to spot as a giraffe among poodles. He imagines that all these great qualities, all this creative, vibrant richness emerge when people become chronically sad, and it isn't the case. It is the opposite of the case. Cronic, untreated sadness just leads to more sadness, to ruined lives, relationships and careers. It's turbocharged jibberish.

Why is it so hard to affirm happiness? Why would anyone be opposed to it?

January 19, 2008 5:22 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

If I had the power to go back in time and eliminate the whole episode of African slavery, with the effect that the blues would never come into being as a musical form, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Human values trump aesthetic values. Or they should.

January 19, 2008 5:58 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...


However, white folkses get the blues, too, so maybe we could have had antislavery and the nusic, too.

I don't buy 'white man can't sing the blues' crap. Especially since I have Eric Clapton singing 'Got You on My Mind' playing as I type this.

January 19, 2008 9:32 AM  
Blogger monix said...

Sorry for the delay in replying, duck, I've been away.

I don't know this writer, I only read the review you linked to and it didn't strike me in the same way you describe.

I think an English professor can write about melancholia in the context of literature without being suspected of wanting clinical depression to be left untreated. I read the piece as a teacher, you read it with your experience of depression - we saw the same words and drew different messages from them.

I have now followed the link to your previous post on this subject (critique of "Artificial Happiness") and see that everything has already been said on the subject.

I'm all in favour of affirming happiness. Which definition shall we use?

January 20, 2008 3:38 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

January 20, 2008 5:41 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Our sense of happiness is undermined by so many things, no comment can contain them. One is the confusion between sensation and sense, surface and depth. Another is our misunderstanding of depression (something that people close to me struggle with) and how its solution should appear. But back to Wilson's article, he's writing about art and its suburban bane, white bread stories as profound as Fox News. I don't think Wilson was asking for a constitutional amendment banning happiness. What his article provoked in me is the sense that when one feels sadness or unhappiness that something "abnormal" is happening, something that should be studied, given a name, and fixed with a pill. Like other motivations, sadness has the capacity to inspire great art because sadness has the power to help us see the fraud of commercial happiness. Thanks.

January 20, 2008 5:44 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Hi Monix,

Perhaps I'm a little sensitive on this topic, but even so I think Wilson's complaint is rather odd.

Maybe it is residual Catholic guilt or residual American Puritanism, but I've always had a problem shaking the feeling that being happy was somehow sinful or unearned. My thinking on the subject was changed by reading this book by Dennis Prager, who holds that not only should one not feel guilty about pursuing happiness, but that was morally obligated to make oneself as happy as possible, for the sake of ourselves and our loved ones as well.

fromclay, thanks for your comments. I understand the point that Wilson is trying to make, but his hysterical tone and hyperbole undermine his credibility. My point is that sadness is in no way in danger of disappearing from human experience. One should never regret one's own or anyone else's happiness. Certainly not for art's sake.

January 20, 2008 6:56 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Ah, yes, and there will always have to be with us the sadness of the worker alienated from his tools.

In my toolshed, I keep a little memento I got from "Ever Ready" Lint, a neighbor of mine in Iowa. E.R. was born around 1890, and during his lifetime he did just about every job a man could do with a strong back and a willing disposition.

One was digging tiling drains with a spade in the Midwestern summers. I keep the spade, to remind me of what I don't have to do.

I am not at all sad about it, either.

January 21, 2008 8:22 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

His article makes a quick descent into meaninglessness:

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste?

Neither he, nor anyone else, would risk the instant ridicule that would immediately follow asking that same question about, say, an inflamed appendix, impacted wisdom tooth, or worn out hip joint.

Yet in his alternate universe, he is the best judge about the degree of psychic pain others should endure for his benefit.

Harry is right, there are far too many English professors.

January 23, 2008 4:46 PM  

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