I recently wrote a post on Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G. Wilson.  I noted that most of the book was devoted to the praises of melancholy, and his argument on that point was the main topic of my post.  I wanted to say a little more about how he handled happiness, though. 

Wilson believes that there is an “American obsession with happiness,” an obsession that he thinks can be traced to the arrival of the Puritans in New England:

These pious men and women held in their heart of hearts the conviction that they had reached a place of destiny, a special environment fated to give them the happiness they deserved.  (p.12)

It’s hard for me to believe that any self-respecting follower of Calvin would think that he or she deserved happiness.  We Calvinists are about as likely to believe in the Easter Bunny or the Great Pumpkin.  against-happinessSimilarly, Wilson gets confused about the “pursuit of happiness” phrase in the Declaration of Independence, repeating an old interpretation that these words were secretly connected to the ownership of property (historian Darrin McMahon’s Happiness: A History clears up this misconception).  Somehow, Wilson connects the Puritans and founding fathers to contemporary pursuits of security and  comfort.   He laments the sense of control that many Americans think they can exercise over their lives:

Before we even have bootstraps, or know what they are, we think that we can pull ourselves up by them, that we can transform ourselves from suffering adolescents to powerful presidents.  Our technologically efficient culture makes these opinions all the easier to hold, for our gadgets increasingly push anything like reality into the background.  We can substitute our dreams for data, our desires for death.  Everywhere we look, we see the big yellow smiley face.  Everywhere we listen, we hear “Have a nice day.”  (p. 19)

Wilson finds the “dystopia of flaccid grins” everywhere—in academia, politics, Protestant churches, the malls, and suburbia, for example.  He calls American happiness “tepid satisfaction.”  He faults the search for security, the use of positive self-talk, and the preference for the merely pretty over the darkly beautiful.  There’s not much he finds to like.

I agree with many of Wilson’s observations.  Trite verse by Helen Steiner Rice makes me wrinkle my nose in disgust, and I find Thomas Kincade paintings sappy.  Still, I think Wilson is unfair to the average “pretty happy” American.  He complains that these happy folks rely too heavily on abstractions and thereby forget the concrete world from which the abstractions first sprung.  Perhaps so, but I can’t help but note that Wilson’s concept of the typical American is highly abstract.  Are there particular individuals who embody the faults that he describes?   He describes a general type, but doesn’t give concrete examples. 

When I think of the happy people I know, I find that they are all unique in their way of being happy.  Each of them may have a few of the characteristics Wilson describes, but I can’t find a true exemplar of spiritless contentment.  To take one example, my brother Thom has been unrelentingly happy for nearly all his life.  As Wilson would predict, it seems to me that he does oversimplify complex realities and doesn’t give much thought to the darker side of life.  However, he has real relationships, not plastic ones, with friends and family.  He isn’t preoccupied with accumulating material goods,  and isn’t sedating himself with banal entertainment.   He’s suffered mistreatment and hardship, and managed to maintain his good cheer in the face of such difficulties.  His positive mood seems largely a function of unshakable optimism about the future, a belief in the  goodness of others, and a strong faith in God.  He works as a school principal, and brings to the job a wonderful ability to convey to even the biggest troublemakers in the school a sense of what they could become.  There doesn’t seem anything false or artificial about his happiness.  I wish Wilson hadn’t just analyzed happy people from a distance, but had gotten to know happy people like Thom.