In Defense of Happiness
by Doug French
by Doug French
"It is a perverse consequence of our fortunate condition that the question of our happiness, or lack of it, presses unhappily hard on us," writes John Lanchester in the New Yorker. Many people in the world are better off, but no one seems to be happier. Modern humans are "stuck on a ‘hedonic treadmill': their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes," according to Lanchester, "and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach."
People want to be happy. War has been declared on melancholy, ever since Methodist preacher Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. Peale instructed people to constantly repeat affirmations to bypass their conscious minds and implant suggestions into his or her unconscious minds.
But Eric G. Wilson contends that the world would be much worse if not for the melancholics that create great art, literature and innovation. In his book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, the Wake Forest English Professor makes the case that it is from our depressed sides that our creativity is derived. To be contented "is living death"; in reality, "we're better off living with the blues."
Reading Wilson's 151-page rant made me warm and, dare I say, happy, all over. His book speaks to us "glass is half empty" types — which makes its thesis suspicious on its face. The American dream has become all about happiness. And to be happy requires things, stuff, and to acquire stuff takes a job, a career, and thus universities, Wilson contends, are now happiness schools. There is not intrinsic value to education but for to just learn a trade. The various strains of religions have become "basically happiness companies, corporations that focus on how one can achieve blessedness while living in this world."
Consuming Americans are wolfing down Happy Meals while "politics has now become a form of entertainment," and the "push for earthly bliss is at the core of the American soul." Professor Wilson describes Americans as happy campers that adore the Lifetime channel, who want God to bless the world and believe that a hug is an ideal gift. These positive thinkers sign their emails with "chirpy icons," and "swear by the power of prayer."
What's discouraging is that Wilson, despite being what appears to be a healthy doubting, questioning type, buys into the environmental apocalypse hocus-pocus that the Left indorses while at the same time embracing the Right's idea that Muslim extremists are going to drop nuclear bombs on us. I would expect more from a guy who writes: "In worshipping happiness, I blind myself to the planet."
To counter the Peale's and Anthony Robbins' of the world, Wilson writes of famous gloomy types like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Jackson Pollock, John Lennon, Beethoven, John Keats, and Joni Mitchell. These famous creators illustrate Wilson's point that creating "doesn't make us unhappy; unhappiness makes us creative." By creating we are living, but the fact is, we all die. But as Wilson points out, "America is obsessed with forgetting this sad fact." Supposedly 85 percent of Americans claim they are happy and thus are "wearing a pretty grin to cover the beautiful grind of life."
If those being polled are telling the truth and those collecting the data are interpreting it correctly, America has very few creators, while the contented masses are busy being happy. This, the English professor believes is a threat to our existence "as dangerous as the most apocalyptic of concerns." By "annihilating melancholia," America is "wantonly hankering to rid the world of numerous ideas and visions, multitudinous innovations and meditations."
OK, so society benefits from the creativity that oozes from melancholy types. But is there any fulfillment gained in their lives: Or just an endless creative treadmill, where happiness is always, just out of reach? "This is indeed the greatest irony of all: the true path to ecstatic joy is through acute melancholia," Wilson concludes. "To take a stance against American happiness — tepid satisfaction — is to stand close to extreme jubilance, rapturous abandonment."
Although Wilson doesn't quote him, H.L. Mencken should have a word here: "Happiness, as I have encountered it in this world, consists chiefly in getting no more than what one wants and wanting no more than one can get…The prudent man tries to mold his desires to the probabilities, or, at all events, to the possibilities."
No one took a stance against American happiness like Mencken did; no wonder Murray Rothbard described him as "The Joyous Libertarian."
March 19, 2008
Doug French [send him mail] is executive vice president of a Nevada bank and associate editor for Liberty Watch Magazine. He received the Murray N. Rothbard Award from the Center for Libertarian Studies.
Copyright © 2008 Doug French