BY: ADRIAN SMITH
I realize now, after reading excerpts from Eric G. Wilson’s Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy that melancholy has an active quality to it. In his book Wilson argues we as a society have developed a strong desire to eliminate sadness from our lives completely, which, in his words is “a hankering to rid the world of numerous ideas and visions, multitudinous innovations and meditations.” Wilson has a point here. Think who you would be without the sad and uncomfortable feelings that often seem to linger without cause.
These feelings, though bothersome in the moment, drive us as individuals to, at the very least, seek out why we find ourselves unhappy and unsatisfied in life. There’s an active quality about that, prompting us to relentlessly search for happiness and the things that might make us feel complete as individuals. Those wandering and unpleasant thoughts keep us, as people, coming back with new ways of being and seeing the world around us in order to stay fresh, renewed and happy.
Without feelings of melancholy, we wouldn’t want better for ourselves. We’d just be complacent. Somehow, in the pursuit of total happiness and satisfaction, Wilson believes we’ve forgotten that “to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations.” People need to experience the full range of our inner experience in order to live a full life.
Without an understanding and revitalization from sadness, there can be no real happiness. And that’s not to say we should hope to find, or experience, sadness or unease in our lives. This just means those emotions too are a part of us and should not be something we strive to do away with altogether.
Wilson believes we confuse the feeling of melancholy with that of depression and is quick to make the distinction, claiming that degrees of activity separate the two, writing, “both forms are more or less chronic sadness that leads to ongoing unease with how things are—persistent feelings that the world as it is is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil. Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another.”
In contrast, he sees the feeling of melancholy as “something that generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.” Although happiness is what we strive for each day, we cannot hope to attain it at the expense of the other emotions that offer us the capacity to live complete psycho-emotional lives. These emotions, particularly melancholy, are needed and should be embraced in order to embrace the full spectrum of the human experience.