Against Happiness
Eric G. Wilson
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Buy *Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy* by Eric G. Wilson online

Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy
Eric G. Wilson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
176 pages
January 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Against Happiness is Eric G. Wilson’s counterargument to the stream of happiness-touting self-help books bombarding the market recently. While the current aim of Americans seems to be achieving happiness at all costs, Wilson argues that melancholy is a necessary state of being for creativity and innovation. Peter D. Kramer’s main point in his book Against Depression is that we view sadness as a precursor to great achievement, and therefore view depression as a necessary evil to society. While Kramer was striving to bring attention to depression as a medical illness rather than a necessary state of being, Wilson runs with the same theory and trumpets the merits of despondency.

Wilson begins by describing happiness as a threat. Many surveys actually report that Americans are increasingly depressed and unhappy with their lives, but Wilson mentions a poll from the Pew Research Center that illustrated 85 percent of Americans consider themselves to be happy. As he rails against the publishing industry that currently pumps out happiness manuals with the result of millions of dollars in book sales, it seems his argument is weak. If the majority of Americans consider themselves to be happy, why would they be devouring happiness self-help books at such an incredible rate?

Continuing, Wilson genuinely fears the complete eradication of melancholy as more Americans are placed on antidepressants in their search for what he considers to be a superficial bliss. If only it was that simple. Many people on antidepressants only find temporary relief from their symptoms and spend a lifetime alternating treatments to achieve a state of well-being.

But Wilson does make an excellent point. He emphasizes the need for balance and contrast in living a full life. The old adage that we cannot truly appreciate happiness if we do not suffer is a valid statement. How do we even recognize happiness if we cannot contrast it with pain? The definition becomes blurred after a time. And if the view of the current state of affairs has been becoming a little too rosy, Wilson’s tirade on current world conditions will provide an ample dose of reality. His commentary on the historical ideal of the “pursuit of happiness” is also of interest. Few would argue that the purpose of American education is anything but to prepare students for capitalism, but Wilson seems to view capitalism as a type of soul relinquishment for material wealth. He believes that the desire for happiness is essentially a need for personal control, a self-serving endeavor.

Then we move on to another shaky platform in Wilson’s assertion. He uses great literary and artistic figures of the past to illustrate how sadness and melancholy enabled them to create invaluable contributions to society. Unfortunately, his examples include icons such as Virginia Woolf, for whom depression and mental illness resulted in despair so great that it led to her ultimate demise. Such extreme examples do little to reassure the public that misery should be revered. On page seven, he emphasizes that he does not wish to romanticize clinical depression, but in using these situations as examples, that is exactly what he is doing. Thankfully, on page 104, he concedes that he probably is “being overly generous to these destructive types because of what they left behind.”

With all of these disputes, it may appear that Against Happiness fails in its intention. That is far from the case. Wilson does well to present the opposition’s perspective on a great concern of society. And while the reader may disagree with his assertions, he provides lots of reasoned argument for consideration. Just as a friendly debate with a colleague, Against Happiness provides a satisfying exchange of ideas, perhaps for the betterment of humanity.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Sabrina Williams, 2008

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