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Mopers Unite! August 25, 2008

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.
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Eric G. Wilson, in this article (and this book) takes Americans to task for their superficial pursuit of happiness.

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.

 

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Comments»

1. Paul Moloney - August 27, 2008

I would make a distinction between sadness and melancholy. Both can be vague in meaning, but sadness brings to my mind the idea that it is caused by others. I think of melancholy or depression as something caused by oneself. Even if this is not true, sadness is something that has to be endured, while depression is something we must eradicate ourselves. I do not think that someone can be happy and depressed at the same time. In fact, depression seems to be contrary to happiness. Depression can be a starting point for happiness in the sense that when we work to eradicate depression we are moving toward happiness. Depression seems to be associated with those that equate happiness with contentment.

2. Nina Rosenstand - August 27, 2008

Dwight,
What a fun article! I’ll get back to that when I’ve read the whole thing. In the meantime I’m reminded of one of my favorite Nietzsche lines(quoted from memory): “Man does not seek happiness; only the Englishman does!”

3. Charlette Lin - August 28, 2008

I wonder if the amount of “happiness” you experience correlates with the amount of “sadness” you experience.

That seems to be what Wilson’s article hints at somewhat–if we superficially experience “happy happy happy!” then we would be living a paradox, so we need to embrace the good and the bad in order to really live life.

But… what are we looking for in life then if not happiness? Is that not what most strive for? I guess people are never supposed to really reach their happy conclusion—they are always supposed to be working towards that goal, and enjoy working for it. We have to “enjoy the journey” as the cliché says.

Eric G. Wilson asked, “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?”

I do not think people can deal with all of that. I am only aware of a few major problems that we are experiencing on this world and I am already on the verge of despair. I think it is a defensive mechanism for people to be ignorant. If a person were to live his/her life constantly aware of all the suffering happens in this world, he/she would probably be extremely miserable. It may be unfortunate that people are like this, but can we really expect for the majority to be any different?

My own method of overcoming ignorance and despair (to be aware of serious issues but not give up) is to dull everything down. Whenever I encounter negative events, I view it as objectively and neutrally as possible (even things that are happening to me personally). As a result, I am “unhappy” a lot less, but I also do not feel the heights of happiness that I did before. When good things happen, I do not see it as exciting anymore.

I wonder what other people do. Do you sacrifice the peaks and the trenches of your emotions to avoid the lowest times, or do you “embrace” it all like Wilson suggests? If neither, what else can be done to live life?

If we stop thinking about “I want to be happy I want to be happy I want to be happy”, would that really change our lives much? I do think that I, among many people, obsess about happiness too much, and that relaxing a bit on that issue may help. However, would we really be doing anything differently? We would still be attempting to accomplish what we want in life… ultimately, to be happy… or what?

4. Huan - August 29, 2008

I think Wilson is simply misconstruing existential ideas, I mean instead of seeking melancholy I’d say it’s more of like a “love of suffering” mentality. The whole article seems to hint at that the happiness obtained from complacency is one that heavily lowers the human potential, but the reason for avoiding this phenomenon given was mainly the possibility of a catastrophy due to our lack of awareness.

It seems that Wilson is simply suggesting that in order to avoid this catastrophy, we must remove ourselves from happiness and open ourselves up to melancholy. The problem with this argument is that it would convince no one, and as Professor Furrow pointed out it could easily lead to no good.

As for Charlette’s question of what other options there are for living life, I’d say the “love of suffering” mentality is quite a bit more meaningful and effective. Mainly this isn’t to say that one must remain in a state of melancholy all the time, but to seek the greatest of challenges and obstacles in order to overcome them. This brings out the greatest creativity of a human being, and it would feel extraordinarily meaningful. In essence, the worst things get, the stronger the “enemy”, the more thrilling and meaningful it will be to defeat them. This will allow one to avoid complacency and mindless pleasure seeking, and fully disclose themself to the absurdity of life.

I would like to think that this is what Wilson was hinting at, but at least from the quote Professor Furrow posted it seems like Wilson completely failed the delivery of the idea.

5. Rida Alvi - August 29, 2008

I think Huan’s post was fate, because I believe my post leads well off of his.

For one to experience true happiness, he/she must know what pain and sorrow feel like, and thus, Wilson urges people to wallow in melancholy to renew their idea of happiness. Like Charlotte said, if you are happy all the time, you live in a paradox. If you feel all different kinds of happiness all the time, then the lowest level of happiness, or the closest level to melancholy, will feel like sadness or depression.

While I don’t agree with the extent of Wilson’s proposal, he had the right idea. It will also lead to appreciation and gratefulness, which are some of the highest form of happiness, in my opinion.

6. Dwight Furrow - September 1, 2008

We have an interesting contrast in the comments. Charlotte is the stoic: “My own method of overcoming ignorance and despair (to be aware of serious issues but not give up) is to dull everything down. Whenever I encounter negative events, I view it as objectively and neutrally as possible (even things that are happening to me personally)”

Huan is the Nietzschean:”..to seek the greatest of challenges and obstacles in order to overcome them. This brings out the greatest creativity of a human being, and it would feel extraordinarily meaningful. In essence, the worst things get, the stronger the “enemy”, the more thrilling and meaningful it will be to defeat them.”

Two classic ways of dealing with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”–both better than wallowing in melancholy.

7. Ethan Soutar-Rau - September 3, 2008

Most of the discussion about melancholy here seems to focus on the common definition; melancholy as depression or gloominess. If you read the article that way, then the whole thing looks like garbage.

However, it doesn’t seem that is what Wilson means when he writes the word melancholy. The primary example that he draws upon is the life and work of John Keats, a man who resisted falling into depression and despair despite an incredibly painful life. In fact, he says, Keats found beauty in his pain that transcended his suffering. In Keats mind, melancholy was not the dulling of emotion and experience, but rather a sharp feeling of anguish. That doesn’t sound like depression to me, it sounds like something much more interesting.

Why does Keats call that inspirational anguish melancholy? He’s not talking about depression. Instead he is taking a page from John Milton who in 1633 invented an entirely new kind of Melancholy in his poem “Il Penseroso”:

“Hail divinest Melancholy,
Whose Saintly visage is too bright
To hit the Sense of human sight;
And therfore to our weaker view,
Ore laid with black staid Wisdoms hue.”

Milton’s Melancholy is a radiant goddess of inspiration, cloaked in blackness so that men would not be overcome by the sight of her. This isn’t depression at all. Milton’s redefinition of melancholy might be painful, but it is never dreary. Rather than being a pit of despair, Milton sees melancholy as the wellspring of genius.

Just for fun here are links to excellent annotated copies of Milton’s poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” which were written as a pair and make a lot more sense if they are read together.

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/l'allegro/
http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/penseroso/

And for contrast a expression of a more tradtional melancholy:

http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2008/07/01


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