Happiness isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be…….Viva Melancholia!

Edgar Degas’ Melancholy (1874)

Ask a person what they most want in life and most will automatically reply “happiness”. It’s more than a fair answer and happiness in life is a worthy goal but is it the alpha and omega of our being? One must feel sadness and loss to understand the absence of happiness and to magnify its benefits. It’s these range of emotions that make us all the more human.

In our technologically driven world, many seek happiness by canceling out sadness through medication. Prozac is one of the more popular medications on the market and like other anti-depressants it has been criticized for making people “less human” since it limits the range of their emotions. Soma was used in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” for much the same reason (amongst other reasons).

Americans are notorious pill-poppers, especially those that can result in some form of “happiness”. After all, it fits into their country’s mission statement: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” all too well. But is happiness everything? Eric G. Wilson says it isn’t and that by eliminating feelings of melancholy Americans are missing out on an essential part of life. Read his excellent article: In Praise of Melancholy. Here’s a short excerpt:

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 further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life’s enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

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3 Responses to Happiness isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be…….Viva Melancholia!

  1. Mike says:

    This cuts right to the heart of the generation who grew up too comfortable to take risks: Japan as the canary in the cultural coal mine. All great human accomplishments come from struggle, be it physical, intellectual, emotional and or spiritual. There’s no escaping it. These kinds of emotional struggle – taken to extremes – modern medicine calls manic-depression.

    Every exceptional artist or musician throughout history – every exceptional man – has displayed manic-depressive traits to some degree or another; chemically suppressing these emotions is a grave error. Having said that, I don’t think medication can be avoided at this stage with regard to people who are a danger to themselves and others.

    There’s a great documentary about manic-depression with the very talented British actor/comedian Stephen Fry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkvS8xGKhOk. He’s manic-depressive himself and if I recall correctly (been awhile since I saw it); while the dark times can get very dark, he’d never trade them for some chemically induced zombie state where he just “is” as opposed to being an emotionally diverse actual person.

    You have to roll with the good times and take the bad on the chin – That’s what life is all about.

  2. vodkasoda says:

    I’m a fan of Stephen Fry’s comedy if not his politics. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but he wrote an autobiography entitled “Moab is My Washpot”. You should check it out.

  3. Mike says:

    Don’t get me started on actors and politics ;)

    Thanks for the book recommendation.

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