"It's time to throw off the shackles of positivity and relish the blues that make us human."
"Against Happiness", Publication date: March 5, 2009, By Professor Eric G. Wilson,
Is it possible to be too happy? Professor Eric Wilson says it is and he believes a healthy amount of melancholy is essential for a full life.
Download, Listen, or read the full transcript of the interview on ABC-RN
Publisher's note: Americans are addicted to happiness. When we're not popping pills, we leaf through scientific studies that take for granted our quest for happiness, or read self-help books by everyone from armchair philosophers and clinical psychologists to the Dalai Lama on how to achieve a trouble-free life: Stumbling on Happiness; Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment; The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. The titles themselves draw a stark portrait of the war on melancholy.
More than any other generation, Americans of today believe in the transformative power of positive thinking. But who says we're supposed to be happy? Where does it say that in the Bible, or in the Constitution? 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. Francisco Goya, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, and Abraham Lincoln were all confirmed melancholics. So enough Prozac-ing of our brains. Let's embrace our depressive sides as the wellspring of creativity. What most people take for contentment, Wilson argues, is living death, and what the majority takes for depression is a vital force. It's time to throw off the shackles of positivity and relish the blues that make us human.
Excerpts from the Transcript
(NOTE: This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.)
Paul Comrie-Thomson: Let's start with melancholia. Eric Wilson is an American academic of English who's written a book that must have one of the most unusual titles we've come across; it's called Against Happiness. Michael spoke with him a few days ago and he started by reflecting on the large number of Americans who consider themselves to be happy.
Eric Wilson: Well, a recent survey showed that 85% of Americans claim to be happy, either happier or indeed very happy. That's one reason I wrote the book, when I came across that statistic I found it quite startling. This survey came out three or four years ago in the midst of, of course, crises all around the world, crises that continue today. The fact that so many Americans could say they were happy in spite of all that suggested to me there's something quite terribly wrong with American culture.
Michael Duffy: Do you believe that 85% of Americans really are happy?
Eric Wilson: That's an interesting question. I wonder if when these people were taking the survey they felt that because they are American they have a responsibility to be happy and perhaps they fudged a little. Certainly I wouldn't want to call 85% of my fellow American citizens liars, however from the very beginning of America as a colony and then as a nation, there has been this sense that America is a place where people can realise dreams, a place of utopia, religious utopias, financial utopias, and even our Declaration of Independence suggests that it's one of the pillars of our entire nation. So I really think that most Americans believe that because America has conceived of itself as a place where dreams can come true, that to be an American means to be happy and furthermore to be American means that one should be happy to be a good citizen. So I suspect there might have been a little bit of exaggeration on the survey.
Michael Duffy: Yes, I was interested in that because you refer in your book many times to this particularly American pursuit of happiness, but I'd have to say I get the feeling that much of what you have to say is also very relevant to Australia. I suspect we think we're a fairly happy society. Whether these people are really happy or not, what do you think they mean by the word? What do they see as being happy?
Eric Wilson: In my experience, what I call 'American happiness' is a desire for a rather trouble-free life. The Declaration of Independence says that we have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The unconscious of that sentence comes from a 1690 text by the philosopher John Locke who says that citizens should have the right to life, liberty and the ownership of property. So my feeling is that the secret of the Declaration of Independence is that property leads to happiness, financial comfort leads to happiness, feeling like you are the master of your space and shouldn't be threatened by anything outside of your space leads to happiness.
So we see in America this addiction to life without the rough spots. We have many people getting plastic surgery, getting the wrinkles out, as it were, we have many people living in gated communities as if they can live in a world where there are no threats from the outside. So my feeling is that American happiness in particular is an overemphasis on contentment, tranquillity that can lead to a rather static life, first of all, but also leads to a rather artificial life because, as you and I both know, the world is far from a tranquil place, it's a rather turbulent, dynamic, rough place.
So I really feel like what we need in America is new vision of a full life that doesn't involve this happiness as stasis but another kind of mode of living that takes into account both the good and the bad, the sorrow and the joy, the darkness and the light.
Michael Duffy: But just looking at the objective circumstances of any individual's life, if they have been fortunate enough to get rid of the rough spots and achieve a level of contentment, what is wrong with that? You say that life is the good and the bad, but if their particular lives don't involve the bad, what's the problem there?
Eric Wilson: I would say they're performing life instead of living life. It seems to me the basic structure of reality is a generative polarity between oppositions. Look at how the natural world works; winter/summer, growth/decay, light/darkness. Human life works the same way; irritation/satisfaction, dissolution/resolution. So I think if someone is aiming for total contentment and then actually believes that he or she has total contentment, that person is living a rather elusory life, it seems to me.
Michael Duffy: If someone listening to this program thought they were happy, would you recommend that they actually seek out an alternative to happiness, and what would that be?
Eric Wilson: What I would say is, when you feel sad, do you suspect that that sadness is a sign of weakness? Do you suspect that that sadness is a sign even of sickness? Do you suspect that your life should be happy all the time? And if the person said yes to me I would say, well, I think you're living in denial, I think that you're repressing large spaces of experience. I would say to this person you should really embrace those dark parts of your life, they're natural, they're normal. And in fact it seems to me that those darker sides of experience, those times when we are sad or sorrowful, we often learn things about ourselves that we would not learn had we simply remained content.
Let's think about it. When we feel sorrowful, disoriented, agitated, insecure, we're often not comfortable with the status quo, we're often not comfortable with the authorities that have taught us what the good life should be. Feeling that we have two choices; we could rush back to the authorities with blind faith, or we could sit with the sadness, sit with the disorientation, the insecurity and ask ourselves, well, what is the good life for me? That often leads to introspection, it often leads to us finding out things about ourselves, powers, potentialities, virtues we didn't know we have. And then we often come up with new habits to act on those new discoveries. So I would say that sorrows often lead to self-knowledge and it often leads to creativity. A person who says he's simply happy all the time is missing out on this very rich part of life.
Michael Duffy: So you're not advocating depression, are you, there are limits here?
Eric Wilson: Oh quite the opposite. In fact in my book I'm very careful to distinguish between depression and what I call melancholy. Depression as I see it and indeed as I have experienced it is a rather horrific state, of course; paralysis, lethargy, apathy, anti-social behaviour, terrible pain. And that should be treated in any way possible; antidepressants, psychotherapy, whatever. Melancholy, in contrast, for me is a very active state. It's an active longing for a richer connection to the world, not the world as it should be but the world as it is. I call this 'generous scepticism', where we're not quite willing to take what our society tells us what we should do, we're willing to think on our own and search ourselves and try to find our own path, not to the tranquil life but to a rich life, indeed what I would almost call an ecstatic life which is this endless jostling between sorrow and joy, darkness and light.
Michael Duffy: Let's talk a little about one of the most interesting parts of your book for me which was the way that the pursuit of happiness has, in your words, turned some of America's most sacred institutions into happiness schools. How do you see this happening in the universities?
Eric Wilson: I've been teaching in universities for about 20 years now and I'm sad to say that many students come to universities, even very good universities, really looking for a certificate that allows them to enter into the world of financial success. My feeling is that many universities aren't really cultivating the introspective life, the life of the mind. Many universities have become overly corporate and the goal of the university is a sort of trade school almost, an aggrandised trade school, to send people out into the world and become good Americans, that means good earners, successful financiers, as it were.
I often see many of the churches in America doing the same thing. I'm generalising a bit, I realise, but the Protestant church in which I grew up was very much tied in with the idea that Christianity leads to a good night's sleep. That is what Nietzsche said Christianity was really for, it leads to [unclear] and a good night's sleep. I know that there are rich intellectual strains in Christianity, but I think a lot of the mainstream Protestantism has been overly influenced by people like Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham.
Michael Duffy: I think that's very interesting, this version of Jesus Christ as a sort of 'happy camper' now has actually taken us a long way from the role that religion used to perform. Traditionally religion could be one of the ways in which people recognised and coped with the reality of suffering in the world, didn't they, but it has changed from that.
Eric Wilson: You're exactly right. If we look at the gospels closely we see that Jesus sweats blood in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion, and when he dies on the cross he exclaims, 'Father, Father, why has thou forsaken me?' Jesus in many ways is the true man of sorrows, someone who knows that those who are poor in spirit are closer to God because they realise that suffering often ignites in us a longing for some kind of metaphysical knowledge.
Unfortunately in the 1950s a man named Norman Vincent Peale published a book called The Power of Positive thinking in which he merged a rather shallow version of Christianity and the American dream, preaching that people who believe in Jesus fully will gain financial comfort. All that is the Protestant work ethic in a new guise. Basically he maintained that if you could utter certain affirmations throughout the day, many of which were actual Bible verses, you would have a successful and rich life.
Michael Duffy: Another area where the pursuit of happiness has obviously had a huge impact is medicine. Medicine spends a lot of time trying to 'cure' people of their unhappiness.
Eric Wilson: A very interesting book came out about three years ago by two psychologists, Horwitz and Wakefield, the book is called The Loss of Sadness, and in this book they show rather convincingly that the way that depression is diagnosed now is much different than the way depression was diagnosed back in the '50s and '60s. What in the '50s and '60s would have passed for normal sadness, sorrow over loss, mourning over death et cetera, is now often being diagnosed as clinical depression and therefore being medicated. This is a real concern for me.
I certainly want to make clear that I think people who are legitimately clinically depressed should be medicated, but I fear that many people in America and perhaps worldwide are now being medicated for just normal sorrowful seasons in their lives. Many friends of mine have lost loved ones, they feel sad, they go to the doctor, 'I feel sad,' they say, and the doctor prescribes an antidepressive. To me this attenuates, numbs-down really vital, visceral experiences of life. Even though they're painful, they seem to be essential for making us human beings.
Michael Duffy: I suppose the avid consumption of recreational drugs is another facet of the same thing. These are people for whom ordinary life is not sufficiently happy so they pop these things into themselves to make themselves more happy for a while.
Eric Wilson: We have so many escapist technologies now, it seems to me, not only plastic surgery which I would call an escapist technology, it allows one to escape the natural wrinkles of life, as it were, but even, yes, as you say, there are all sorts of narcotics, stimulants, that allows us to numb ourselves, to say life is okay almost all the time. I'm certainly not innocent of using stimulants myself, I'm not trying to come across as a puritan, I assure you, but I really think there's a feeling in America and perhaps abroad that if our society could develop properly we could have a rather pain-free life.
One book that influenced my book rather profoundly was Aldus Huxley's Brave New World. I read the book in high school, I read it again recently for a class that I was teaching and it really spoke to me, and I thought, well, perhaps indeed we're moving toward a culture where pain is seen as something that does not have to exist anymore, physical pain, psychological pain, as if we want all up with no down, all light with no dark, and that leads to a rather unnatural situation that is often quite counterproductive.
Michael Duffy: Of course, yes. But you do make the very interesting point in your book that melancholy has been a great inspirer of creativity. You talk about some of the names you just mentioned and Coleridge and Blake and Keats and Beethoven and others. So that leads me to this question; do you think that the rise of happiness, assuming it has been on the increase in America, has led to a decline in creativity?
Eric Wilson: That too is a fascinating question. I don't want to come across in an overly general way here and suggest that there are no great poets, writers or musicians. I will say though that it seems to me that America's overemphasis on psychological and physical comfort could well, if it persists and increases as I suspect it will, lead to a culture in which the kind of weird creative disruptions we've seen in America over the past 100 years won't occur anymore. One rock critic said that Bob Dylan was a genius for capturing the old, weird America. And I feel that the artists that I talk about, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, and others, and of course the great poets and writers of the past 100 years have tapped into that, the gothic America I'll call it, the America that is attuned to pain and suffering and how that can actually lead to transcendence when embraced in a certain way. I fear that if we do get too caught up in the idea that we can generate technologies to do away with pain it will hurt the creativity of our culture. I know that sounds a bit apocalyptic, but keep in mind I did have novels like Aldus Huxley's Brave New World in the back of my head when writing this book. In some ways I do fear the worst.
Eric Wilson's book Against Happiness was published last year by Farrar Straus & Giroux.
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