Ask anyone if they want to be happy and they’ll surely say yes. The pursuit of happiness has spurned a multi-million dollar business. But the relentless pursuit of happiness is unrealistic. No one is happy all of the time and when people expect to be happy all of the time, they are likely to find happiness an illusive state of mind. As the obsession with happiness has reached great heights, it is only natural to expect an antithetical movement against the happiness imperative. Yet while I agree that happiness cannot be an end unto itself, I caution against embracing the opposite.
One author leading the challenge against the relentless pursuit of happiness is Eric Wilson, whose book “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy” talks to the classical notion of the depressed artist. He applauds the idea that melancholia is the root of creativity. Wilson reacts against one extreme by presenting another. I might add that Wilson is a professor of English; not psychology or psychiatry. Peter D. Kramer, in his book “Against Depression” fervently challenges the romantic notion of the depressed artist; depression is not something to be taken lightly.
The synthesis of these two extremes is the ideal state. One should neither embrace happiness or sadness. I have to admit that I cannot see people running off to “sadness seminars” as they would for “happiness workshops” so my caution is possibly unnecessary. Intended or not, in presenting the extreme Wilson has pulled us closer to the middle path.
In the end, chasing one emotional state or another is inevitably flawed. In chasing happiness we often find ourselves unhappy – life rarely meets our expectations. I chasing sadness we may find ourselves slipping into pervasive sadness and chronic depression (which is not as romantic as you might think – and downright dangerous).
What we should be doing is finding activities that are meaningful and challenging for us. And in doing so we may find ourselves sometimes happy and sometimes sad; but if we are not attached to being happy or being sad and we simply acknowledge these feelings, become mindful of them we may find ourselves content with the way things are.