A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that almost eighty-five percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least happy. The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field: “positive psychology,” devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel sort of science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are now learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy and on why we are happy. The self-help press itself still fills the shelves with step-by-step plans for satisfaction. Everywhere I see advertisements offering even more happiness: happiness on land or by sea, in a car or under the stars.
And now, probably for the first time in history, scientists are developing mood-altering drugs that might well, one day in the near future, remove sadness from the system once and for all. Truly, we might be on the verge of an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of joy without pain.
But surely all of this happiness can’t be for real. Are we to believe that four out of every five Americans can be content amidst the terrible suffering of our world, the poverty and the violence, the war and failure? Are some people lying, or are they simply afraid to be honest in a culture in which the status quo is nothing short of manic bliss? Aren’t we suspicious of this statistic? Aren’t we further troubled by our culture’s overemphasis on happiness? Don’t we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to a one-sided existence?
I, for one. am afraid that our 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. This was precisely the fear of John Keats, one of the greatest English poets. In April of 1819, Keats wrote the following question: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?” Implied in this inquiry is this: a person can only become a fully formed human being through suffering and sorrow. In a country in which almost everyone claims to be happy, this notion surely seems quite strange, even deranged. Indeed, in light of our recent craze for happiness, we are likely to challenge Keats’ meditation outright, to condemn it as a dangerous, and dated, an affront to the modern American dream.
Let me be clear. I’m not questioning the quest for happiness in general. On the contrary, I’m thinking only of what I see as a specific American type of happiness: happiness as quick gratification, material comfort, a life mostly free of rough spots. Likewise, I’d like also to be definite about this: I’m not romanticizing clinical depression. I realize that there are many out there enduring an extremely pained existence. Obviously, these people should do whatever they can to escape their awful woe and attain peace.
I do wonder, however, if normal sadness — typical melancholy — is increasingly being viewed as a sickness, a state to be treated with medication. Of course, there is a fine line between normal melancholy and clinical depression. What separates the two, as far as I can tell, is degree of activity. Both are forms of sadness that lead to ongoing unease with how things are — persistent feelings that the world as it is, is not quite right. 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, melancholia (in my eyes) 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.
Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treat melancholia as an aberrant state. This could be terribly dangerous. To treat normal sadness as a disease is to degrade an essential part of the human experience. Think of it: when we are sad, we are often yearning for a deeper relationship to the world, a more intimate connection to those around us. This desire frequently encourages us to explore parts of ourselves we never would have noticed if we had remained content. These new realms of our psyches often open into unrealized powers. These potentialities call us to grow, to imagine fresh and vital projects. In this light, melancholy leads to self-revelation and creativity.
In fleeing sadness, we rush toward blandness. The quest for untroubled enjoyment is a drive toward death. The American dream might become a nightmare.
Eric G. Wilson is Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University and the author of Against Hapiness: In Praise of Melancholy.