How the American obsession with happiness at the expense of sadness robs us of the capacity for a full life.
“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Van Gogh wrote in one of his many letters expounding his mental anguish. And yet the very melancholy that afflicted him was also the impetus for the creative restlessness that sparked his legendary art. In his diary, the Danish philosopher and poet Søren Kierkegaard — one of the most influential thinkers of the past millennium — wrote that he often “felt bliss in melancholy and sadness” and thought he was “used by the hand of a higher Power through [his] melancholy.” Nietzsche, too, believed that a certain amount of suffering is essential to the soul.
And yet the modern happiness industrial complex seems bent on eradicating this dark, uncomfortable, but creatively vitalizing state — something Eric G. Wilson explores with great subtlety and wisdom in Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (public library | IndieBound).
With an eye toward the marketable ticker of bad news on which our commercial news media feed, Wilson writes:
Our minds run over a daunting litany of global problems. We hope with our listing to find a meaning, a clue to our unease.
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.
Considering what lies behind our desire to eradicate sadness from our lives, Wilson admonishes that our obsession with happiness — something he considers a decidedly American export — “could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse.”
To be clear, I myself am deeply opposed to the Tortured Genius myth of creativity. But I am also of the firm conviction that access to the full spectrum of human experience and the whole psychoemotional range of our inner lives — high and low, light and darkness — is what makes us complete individuals and enables us to create rich, dimensional, meaningful work.
It is important, then, not to mistake Wilson’s point for romanticizing melancholy and glorifying malaise for its own sake — rather, he cautions against the artificial and rather oppressive distortion of our inner lives as we forcibly excise sadness and inflate happiness. He writes:
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?
He is especially careful to delineate between the creatively productive state of melancholy and the soul-wrecking pathology of clinical depression:
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.
In the remainder of Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Wilson goes on to explore how we can avoid falling in the trap of such shallow and superficial “happiness,” reap the spiritual benefits of darker emotions, and learn to be ennobled and creatively empowered rather than consumed by them.
Complement it with Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and a look at the link between creativity and mental anguish, then see this excellent animated history of melancholy from my friends at TED Ed: