Relevant Article on Happiness #3

At NPR.org, there’s an article about Eric G. Wilson, the author of a new book entitled Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

Here’s a quote from his book:

At the behest of well-meaning friends, I have purchased books on how to be happy. I have tried to turn my chronic scowl into a bright smile. I have attempted to become more active, to get away from my dark house and away from my somber books and participate in the world of meaningful action. … I have contemplated getting a dog. I have started eating salads. I have tried to discipline myself in nodding knowingly. … I have undertaken yoga. I have stopped yoga and gone into tai chi. I have thought of going to psychiatrists and getting some drugs. I have quit all of this and then started again and then once more quit. Now I plan to stay quit. The road to hell is paved with happy plans.

As I understand it, his argument that mild to moderate depression is actually a good thing is twofold: that melancholy actually creates and causes human creativity, and that moderate depression is not a disease that needs to be treated with piles and piles of pretty pills.

 While provocative, I’m not sure I agree with his entire thesis.  First and foremost, it is not necessary to be depressed in order to be creative.  Sure, at times its influential, but there have been brilliant works of art that have not come from gloomy and self-loathing artists.  It is a disservice to our minds to think that our emotions control and rein in our intellect to such a substantial degree.  Personally, I do not think better when I’m depressed- depression tends to focus the thoughts into such a narrow spectrum that my output pales compared to when I view the entire world as a possible palette of ideas.

Along the same vein, I’ve said before that sadness is a natural part of being happy.  However, Wilson argues that it is okay to not be happy- that being mildly depressed for most of your adult life is actually a good thing.  To which I reply- my hunch is that Mr. Wilson actually enjoys being miserable, thus he has managed to turn his sadness into happiness.  We all know these people- those who aren’t happy unless there’s a problem they can complain endlessly about to everyone within ear shot.  It might not be as pure a happiness as a “normal” person would feel, but who’s to know for sure?  It definitely brings the person some pleasure.

 The only thing I can agree with him on is that pills are not the cure for sadness.  They can be a stopgap at times, but they don’t hold the key.  I imagine that Mr. Wilson has met many people (as have I) that seemed outwardly happy but were really only fooling themselves.  After being in close contact with enough of those people, I can see why he might defend depression- at least the person who is depressed is actually authentic.  Hands down, it’s better to be truly sad than psuedo-happy just for the sake of appearances. 

There’s also something to the idea that it is somewhat normal for rational, intelligent human beings to be depressed in a society that seems to swap values and philosophies like trading cards, as well as consume for entertainment.  But being constantly depressed is not the answer for those individuals- their only route to happiness is to point others to what they believe is the right path, in the spirit of a Martin Luther King, Jr.  No one would have been surprised had the great civil rights leader grown depressed and stopped preaching his message- imagine the obstacles he faced.  But he soldiered on, and just over forty years later Barack Obama is a legitimate contender for the Presidential Race.

In short, I feel that Mr. Wilson is stuck in that ennui that grips the intelligent when they are faced with the struggles and weight of the world- the same sense of dismay that must be shaken off if one is to truly do anything great.  In my humble opinion, he has stopped looking for a way to get the weight off his shoulders and has learned to accept and even appreciate it- an act of senseless sadomachochistic martydom that does neither him nor the world much good. 

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