Add to oil guzzling, outsize coffee drinks, and celebrity malfunctions another American addiction. Happiness, if we’re to believe Eric G. Wilson, is “an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse,” a disaster he compares to those foreshadowed by global warming and other apocalypses. Once he’s clucked over his Chicken Little scenario, Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, lays out the case for allowing a little rain to fall into our lives.
In the pursuit of happiness, Americans pop pills and read step-bystep guides as never before, cheered on by the popular new field of “positive psychology.” In a 2006 Pew Research Center poll, nearly 85 percent of Americans said they were at least moderately happy, a finding that dismays Wilson, given the world’s woes (see global warming et al.) and life’s irritations (see this morning’s spousal spat at breakfast). Might these inane “happy types,” with their taste for McMansions, televangelists, and Cool Whip desserts, lure the holdouts to the bright side?
What most alarms Wilson is the specter of a “police state of Pollyannas” that could deprive us of the creative frisson we experience when we careen between agony and ecstasy. He fears the birth of a nation “denuded of gorgeous lonely roads and the grandeur of desolate hotels, of half-cracked geniuses and their frantic poems.” Or, put more epigrammatically (he has a weakness for variations on his refrain): “The blues are clues to the sublime.”
There’s a powerful argument to be made that the brave new world of psychiatry could extinguish a certain creative genius that shows up in people we label depressed. Wilson is at no loss for historical examples of writers, painters, musicians, and others who complained of symptoms that would get them a clinical diagnosis today. (In a letter to a friend at the tender age of 16, Ludwig van Beethoven revealed that, in addition to asthma, he suffered from “melancholy which for me is almost as great an evil as my illness itself.”) As for the rest of us, Wilson argues that a healthy helping of “pervasive gloom” will heighten our appreciation of life and of who we are.
The best retort to Wilson’s thesis is Peter Kramer’s book Against Depression (2005), which Wilson’s title clearly references (though only in Against Happiness’s bibliographical notes, a useful digest of the literature on happiness and depression, does Kramer’s book merit a mention). Kramer argues that Western society has romanticized a condition that ought to be treated aggressively, like any other debilitating disease. Depression itself, he holds, bestows no special generative magic. His is an extreme stance, but important to remember when we wax poetic about tortured poets.
Wilson says he is not questioning therapy for “lost souls” who might harm themselves or others or who simply find existence unbearable. But that leaves a lot of pain to be celebrated rather than medicated. Though he wrings his hands at our tendency to treat everyday sadness as if it were a disease, Wilson makes the opposite mistake of failing to engage with the dark side of darkness. After a few pages cataloging the devastation many of his creative heroes wrought in their own lives and others’, he blithely concludes that “out of their suffering emerge things rich and strange.”
Perhaps Wilson’s bigger mistake is that he underestimates the resilience many “happy types” display in the face of life’s miseries, large and small. In that Pew poll he cites as evidence of Americans’ shallow bliss, only a third of those surveyed claimed to be “very happy.” Another 50 percent characterized themselves as only “pretty happy,” which could easily describe folks who, despite the recent death of Fido, yesterday’s parking ticket, and a fraught relationship with Mom, just grin and bear it.
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Sarah L. Courteau is literary editor of The Wilson Quarterly.
Reviewed: "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy" by Eric G. Wilson, Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, 2007.