*Hartford Courant* 3/2/2008 includes an article: “The Pursuit Of
Unhappiness; Let’s Give Melancholy Its Due, Experts Advise” by Kathleen Megan.
Here’s the article:
All his life, Eric G. Wilson had been made to feel guilty because of his
melancholic bent. On summer mornings as a child, he would loll about in
bed in the darkness of his bedroom, as he writes now, brooding over
“lost memories” and “impossible futures” until his father pulled him out
As he grew into an adult, he says, there was always great pressure to be
happy. Finally, at the urging of his friends, he began trying everything
he could to lift his spirits. He bought books on happiness, took up
jogging, tried yoga and then tai chi. He ate salads, traded his chronic
scowl for a smile, watched upbeat Doris Day and Frank Capra movies and
made it a habit to say “great” and “wonderful” as much as possible.
But nothing changed. His basic instinct toward melancholia remained, so
instead he turned his sights to the happiness industry — the flood of
self-help books, projects and other efforts aimed at getting us all to
In his recently published book, “Against Happiness” (Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, $20), Wilson says the cultural pressure to be happy all the time
leads some people to assess their happiness levels and come up wanting —
which only leads to more unhappiness. The focus on happiness makes him
and others feel that “melancholia is some sort of weakness that needs to
be cured by a strong will,” said Wilson.
“There is an assumption of ‘positive psychology,’ that we are put on
Earth to be happy, and being happy is the best thing we can be,” said
Wilson, who is a scholar of British romanticism and a professor at Wake
Forest University in North Carolina. “To me, that overemphasizes
happiness at the possible expense of another very important part of
life: sadness, or melancholy.”
Walk into any bookstore, and ask for the self-help “happiness” section,
and you’ll be overwhelmed by shelves of books with titles like
“Happiness Now!” by Robert Holden (Hay House, $15), “Happier” by Tal Ben-
Shahar ( McGraw-Hill, $22) or “Plato Not Prozac” by Lou Marinoff (Harper
Paperbacks, $13), along with old standbys like Norman Vincent Peale’s
“The Power of Positive Thinking.”
And now, making matters all the more confusing, there is a bit of a
backlash going on against all the happiness gurus, led by writers like
Wilson, who question — some humorously, others seriously — whether the
focus on happiness in American culture is healthy.
“My book is a good old-fashioned polemic,” said Wilson, “but it is
really raising a very serious question: Are we as a culture trying to
expunge unhappiness? Is that dangerous for our culture, if indeed we
were able to expunge unhappiness?”
How did there get to be so much emphasis on happiness in recent years?
The quest for happiness is, of course, many centuries old. Both Plato
and his student Aristotle addressed it.
But until relatively recently, books on happiness were mainly the work
of religious leaders, philosophers or others with little to offer beyond
wisdom or charisma.
What makes the more recent crop of happiness books more substantive is
that many are rooted in research-based “positive psychology,” which has
been called the study of human flourishing or well-being.
As president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman
launched the field of study in the late ’90s. Before then, psychology
largely addressed those who were ailing with mental illnesses. This new
field would focus on well-being and what enhances it. Since then, there
has been much research and writing done on what contributes to happiness.
“There has always been a lot of writing about happiness,” said Ben-
Shahar, the author of “Happier” and the teacher of a popular class on
positive psychology at Harvard. “This is the difference: It’s no longer
the personal ideas or the whims of individual writers. There’s a body of
science behind it, a body of research.
“There’s a lot of research showing that when you help people identify
their strengths and become more optimistic, you are also helping them
become more resilient.”
Indeed, among the benefits that have been found to accrue in happier
people are productivity, better social lives, stronger immunity and more
Scott Plous, a professor of psychology at Wesleyan University, said one
of the difficulties these writers face is that it may be hard for
readers to distinguish between self-help texts by pop writers and books
grounded in viable science.
His own hint: Look for authors affiliated with universities. The books
with extensive footnotes are also likely to be more substantive.
“These are people who have track records as scientists and are looking
at things like: How is happiness related to affluence or materialism?
They are applying tools of rigorous research and science to answer
questions that were previously left to pop writers.”
Among these research-based books on happiness are “Stumbling on
Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage, $15), which was published in 2005
and showed, among other insights, that people don’t predict very well
what makes them happy. Others include Ben-Shahar’s book, also published
last year, which contains research-based and practical ways to work
toward a happier life, and, just out in January, “The How of Happiness:
A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life you Want” by Sonja Lyubomirsky
(Penguin Press HC, $26).
Lyubomirksy’s book says that research shows that 50 percent of your
happiness is probably genetically related, what she calls a “happiness
set point,” while 10 percent may be attributable to situation, with the
remaining 40 percent within your power to change.
Asked if it’s frustrating to have her book shelved in the section that
contains pop books like the inspirational best-seller “The Secret,”
Lyubormirsky said, “I feel like I’m offering something different and
unique. ‘The Secret’ is complete rubbish. It’s insanity that people are
buying this book. So I don’t see myself competing with that.”
But it is our obsession with happiness that concerns some psychologists
like Jerome Wakefield, one of the authors of “The Loss of Sadness: How
Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder” (Oxford
University Press, $30).
“We’ve actually, as a culture, pathologized sadness to the point where
if you’re not reasonably happy, there’s a suspicion that something is
wrong with you,” said Wakefield, a professor at New York University.
His book is about how psychiatry’s definition of depressive disorder has
expanded dramatically in the past quarter-century from what it was 100
years before. “A lot of intense normal reactions like the loss of a
loved one, but also the loss of a relationship, a spouse or a girlfriend
or boyfriend, the loss of a job … anything that makes you unhappy, sad
or miserable for a few weeks or months … is falling more and more
under the category of depressive disorder.”
Wakefield said there’s a reason that readers are hungry for books on
“In a culture where many of us are working like crazy, overworking, have
lives that are extremely busy,” he said, “there is a growing question in
people’s minds: Is this all there is? What is life about? Where does
happiness lie? Am I making the right trade-offs?”
People are concerned about how to balance “pleasure, happiness and
meaning,” said Wakefield, and it’s a “legitimate question being raised.”
But, Wakefield said, sadness is also very important: “It tells us when
the most meaningful things in our lives might be going astray.’
“One of the concerns,” Wakefield said, is that “natural emotion
shouldn’t be eradicated lightly.”
A Question Of Balance
Wilson believes lives are made richer “when we do embrace both sides of
life: the dark and the light, the joy and the sorrowful. … It might
lead to a more profound existence. It leads to exuberance and joy.”
However, he is careful to say that he’s not romanticizing depression or
supporting a “cult of sadness,” but “there is a call to a kind of middle
Wilson also points to the great amount of creativity that has been born
of dark emotion: Vincent Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Samuel Coleridge,
Joni Mitchell, to name a few.
But, Lyubormirksy said, evidence suggests that happier people are more
“Depressed people can’t do anything,” said Lyubormirksy. “They can’t get
off the couch.”
Yet proponents of positive psychology say they are misunderstood if
anyone thinks they are talking about eliminating negative emotions.
Positive psychologists don’t just talk about happiness, said Shahar,
“they talk about engagement, about a deep sense of meaning, a life of
purpose. These are as much a part of the happy life as pleasure. …
There are not shortcuts. There is no “happiness now,” no five easy steps
“Sadness is inevitable. It’s like saying the law of gravity is good or
bad,” said Ben-Shahar. “A full and fulfilling life is not a life that is
devoid of painful emotions. There are only two kinds of people who don’t
experience painful emotions: the psychopath and dead people.”