Against Happiness | Eric G. Wilson

Summary of: Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy
By: Eric G. Wilson


In ‘Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy’, Eric G. Wilson reveals the hidden beauty within melancholia and how it has inspired various great thinkers, artists, and leaders throughout history. Differentiating between the charms of true beauty and the artificial appeal of pretty things, Wilson encourages readers to embrace their low moods, rather than seek constant happiness. With the help of various influential figures from Carl Jung to John Lennon, the book delves into the mechanisms behind creativity and introspection, the impact of happiness on modern society, and the importance of recognizing and facing existential anxieties.

The Beauty in Melancholy

Melancholy or depression can trigger creativity and achievement for some people, including some of history’s notable figures like Hemingway, Pollock, Churchill, and Freud. Many artists and writers created their greatest works while experiencing melancholia, including Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Joni Mitchell. Melancholy can offer an “assault of truth,” exposing the darker parts of ourselves, which can lead to the creation of beautiful art that would not have been possible without it.

Beauty in Melancholy

Psychologist Carl Jung’s research on the relationship between opposites found that melancholy, often experienced by many artists, can lead to understanding, insight, and self-awareness. Jung believed that it is a necessary catalyst that shapes one’s identity and is a crucial element of mental health. He found that the unconscious is the source of all connected oppositions, including darkness and light, and male and female. Through understanding this principle, one can appreciate the beauty found in melancholy and its importance in personal growth.

The Gift of Melancholy

John Keats’ ode to melancholy encourages us to embrace pain and find beauty in life’s fleeting nature. Melancholia allows us to see true beauty and distinguish it from superficial pretty things. People’s fear of death makes them averse to sadness and pain, but by embracing our melancholy nature and confronting our anxiety about death, we can appreciate life’s beauty and live creatively. Focusing on finitude energizes us to live fully.

Embracing Melancholy

Americans’ obsession with happiness and avoidance of melancholy is unhealthy, preventing them from fully experiencing the nuance and depth of life.

Melancholy has a bad reputation in American culture. Despite its potential to inspire introspection and creativity, Americans view it as a negative emotion to be avoided at all costs. This obsession with happiness has led to a culture of seeking out antidepressants and therapy options at the slightest sign of discomfort or anguish. In a world that has become increasingly shallow, avoiding melancholy prevents people from tapping into the full range of human emotions and experiences.

In contrast, embracing melancholy allows people to navigate the complexities of life. Melancholy sparks grand thoughts and inspires vital creativity, providing an avenue for individuals to question their reality and find deeper meaning. In a society that tends to view things at their surface level, melancholy encourages individuals to look beyond the superficial.

Motivational and self-help experts have become the high priests and priestesses of a culture where happiness is considered to be a religion. They offer 10-step guides that promise to lead individuals on a path towards everlasting happiness. However, these promises are artificial and unrealistic. True happiness comes from experiencing the predictable dualities of life, including darkness and light, joy and melancholy.

Philosopher Alan Watts recognized that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe that is inherently fluid and ever-changing. The constant pursuit of happiness prevents individuals from embracing the natural cycles of life, and ultimately hinders their ability to experience life fully.

In conclusion, Americans need to recognize the value of melancholy and embrace it for all that it has to offer. By doing so, they can tap into the full range of human emotions and experiences, allowing them to navigate the complexities of the world in a more nuanced and meaningful way.

Pursuing Happiness in America

Pursuing happiness has been a longstanding pursuit of Americans, dating back to the nation’s earliest settlers. Their perseverance and optimism in the face of great adversity paved the way for future generations that sought both bounty and fulfillment of dreams. This mindset was later propagated by leaders like Benjamin Franklin, who believed that happiness and riches were attainable for anyone who worked hard. Today, Americans still hold property ownership and accumulation of wealth as key tenets of contentment, making the U.S. the quintessential “capitalistic paradise”.

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