Mopers Unite! August 25, 2008Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy…What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment?… Surely all this happiness can’t be for real. How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe — not only the collective and apocalyptic ills but also those particular irritations that bedevil our everyday existences, those money issues and marital spats, those stifling vocations and lonely dawns?… Aren’t we suspicious of this statistic? Aren’t we further troubled by our culture’s overemphasis on happiness? Don’t we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior?
Indeed Wilson is right. Americans do tend to confuse happiness with contentment, complacency, and pleasure, and we do so at some peril because, when we think this way, we don’t focus on the work we need to do to sustain genuine happiness and prosperity.
But then he goes off the deep end.
I for one am afraid that 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 am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia… Melancholia, far from a mere disease or weakness of will, is an almost miraculous invitation to transcend the banal status quo and imagine the untapped possibilities for existence. Without melancholia, the earth would likely freeze over into a fixed state, as predictable as metal. Only with the help of constant sorrow can this dying world be changed, enlivened, pushed to the new.
This is psychologically implausible in the extreme. Instead of following up his complaints about our superficial understanding of happiness by referencing the long tradition beginning with Aristotle that views happiness as a life of achievement and good fortune, he advocates a life of –melancholy? Since when is melancholy, even when it doesn’t slide into clinical depression, a motivational state? Exceptions notwithstanding, most accomplished people I know don’t spend a lot of time wallowing in sadness. They acknowledge the vulnerabilities of life and then get on trying to cope with them.
Wilson has made the same mistake to which Nina alludes in this post from a few weeks ago—he defines happiness as contentment without ever considering the alternatives. The alternative to vapid, “blissed” out dopamine junkies is not melancholics. Rather, it is people who manage to cope well enough with their vulnerabilities so they are able to enjoy what they care about. That takes work and moral attention—not moping.