Wednesday, February 13, 2008

In Defense of Melancholy

A new book by Eric Wilson argues that we should be more willing to embrace melancholy and be less desperate to be happy. In Against Happiness, the author describes his own dark mood and how he battled it for years before accepting it as part of who he is. I suspect it is a part of who we all are.

Wilson separates melancholy from clinical depression and other psychiatric illnesses. He’s talking about mild to moderate sadness – an emotion we as a society seem desperate to eradicate with pharmaceuticals, with sex, with escapist violence, with cruises and Vegas and an endless appetite to accumulate more and more material possessions, even if that means going into deeper and deeper debt.

But it doesn’t really work, does it? And, worse, the fact that none of it brings us endless happiness just makes us all the more morose. The sociology of it takes up volumes, as do the prescribed solutions. We need more purpose. We need deeper connections. We need stronger religion. We need less technology. We need more free time. We need better diets. We need more love.

What if we don’t need any of that any more than we need the trip to Vegas or the IPod? What if melancholy is just a natural part of life? What if we are unfulfilled because we are bottomless?

We humans have such fantastic capacity, for knowledge, for love, for hate, for happiness and sorrow. But that capacity comes with a caveat: if there is no pinnacle there is always the sense we’re falling short. Some of us find that gap between what we are and what we can be more unbearable than others. Some of us find those bright bursts of happiness more elusive than others. But all of us feel sad and I bet we all feel it more often than we’re willing to admit.

Never in the history of the world have one people had so much of the world’s bounty set before them. Never have a people suffered so little, hungered so infrequently. Yet we cannot find regular or even frequent happiness. This is not a condemnation of us as a people, merely a sign that perhaps we humans, in exchange for all our gifts, are fated to live much of our lives in a state of sweet sadness.

We can fight against this natural part of ourselves. Or we can, like Eric Wilson suggests, come to terms with our own melancholy. I think I’ll opt for the latter.

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Blogger bucyrus said...

I dunno, I'd hestitate before suggesting that the majority are much alike in this respect. I think there's a pretty broad range when it comes to the amount of innate happiness or lack that each individual feels. Some folks are born schlep-rocks, and other folks are chipper. Way it goes.

Seems to me that for each individual, this baseline is usually a fairly stable baseline component of the personality. Sad sacks who make millions tend to be millionaire sad sacks, as it were.

If this sort of thing interests you, you might want to look into some of the research that is being done that compares folks self-assessments to tallies of actual reports. In other words, they ask folks how happy they are with various aspects of their lives, and then they follow up by making them report on their emotional state at regular intervals throughout the day for a period of time.

The one study I saw on this claimed, for example, that many parents report being pretty satisfied and fulfilled, but that the tallies told somewhat grimmer tale of lives with substantial pressure, tenseness, and not all that much reported happiness.

12:02 AM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

I always say my kids make me very happy, when they're not making me misserable.

As for the post, I didn't mean to imply everyone is morose -- just that we all experience some sadness and that's to be expected. Some of us are more melancholy than others but we all have our moments.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Rob Jackson said...

And be careful with self-report studies. People...especially parents want to report that they're happy because they want to believe that everything in their lives (kids, jobs, spouses, etc) should all make them happy when in fact, life is very messy. We get mad, distressed, agressive, passive, anxious. We also get elated, surprised, joyous, etc.

I think the point is not to feel burdened by our emotions. The pitfall is that if society pressures us to be in good moods and to be happy all the time, then at the times where we are naturally morose, we may also feel anxious about it, and that's not healthy. Being morose is healthy at the appropriate times. Being morose about bring morose...not so healthy.

9:58 AM  
Blogger amba said...

Here's another book to check out. From the review:

"the psychiatric profession has understood and reclassified normal human sadness as largely an abnormal experience....

7:33 AM  
Blogger amba said...

"The way in which people interpret their emotions is changing," Horwitz told a reporter, "People are starting to think that any sort of negative emotion is unnatural, that they can take medication and feel better. What that can also do is...make it less likely for people to make real changes in their lives that might be better than medications."

7:52 AM  

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