This is from my column of the same name “On The Homefront” which appears weekly in the Kingsville Reporter:
Fair play. Turnabout. All is fair in love and war. Okay, this column has nothing to do with the third phrase, just thought I would throw it in, in case the first two did not catch your attention. I have written ad nauseum about happiness: what it is, how to attain it, and various experiments –“The Happiness Project” conducted by Gretchen Rubin springs immediately to mind, to convince you that happiness should be not our goal, but our place of rest.
On the other hand there are people who believe “this quest for happiness at the expense of sadness, this obsession with joy without tumult, is dangerous, a deeply troubling loss of the real, of that interplay, rich and terrific, between antagonisms.” This view is held by Professor Eric G. Wilson, creator of the book “Against Happiness”. Author David Gates joins Wilson in defying the worship of happiness, saying that Wilson has written “A lucid, literate defence of feeling like hell—and, in fact, of feeling itself.” I don’t believe that the pursuit of happiness necessarily erases feelings, particularly the melancholy ones, but instead provides a respite.
Though Wilson quotes Ralph Waldo Emersonto prove his point, I think that by taking Emerson’s words as a way to conduct your life, he hit a middle ground, rather than an extension of his argument. Emerson said, “I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods…The middle region of our being is the temperate zone.”
But who writes about the temperate zone—that in between place, where, let’s face, most of us are to be found? I agree that the eternal focus on happiness makes it even more difficult to attain. But to give in, and believe as James Hillman claims, that “Depression opens the door to beauty of some kind” is not really the way I want to go either.
I suppose to make his argument, Wilson must make some outrageous claims. He theorizes that to foster a society of total happiness is to concoct a culture of fear; that mirth gives away our courage; that we relinquish our hearts for contentment; and our “blissed out culture” ignores sadness and feelings. I am not sure what world Wilson lives in, but I believe his book is only telling one side of the story. He tells the story intelligently, in hovering ivory tower language understood (maybe) by academes, but he doth protest too much as my favourite bard has said.
Before I was romanced by all this “send only positive statements out to the universe” and “law of attraction stuff” (being romanced does not necessarily mean being convinced), I heartily endorsed and practiced Emerson’s “moderate” stance. Neither a “glass half empty nor glass half full” kind of person, I have always believed in not checking my scepticism at the door, but neither do I invite it in. I agree that as (Samuel Taylor) Coleridge once said and Wilson quoted, “The thirsty man knows water more keenly than the sated one.” But once having known thirst, one has to admit that being sated is a much happier state.
In her attempt at corralling happiness, Gretchen Rubin found that being unhappy limited her. She did not find any great truths in her malaise, in fact she was suffering from a “recurrent sense of discontent”.
Wilson believes that “our recent culture has made it startlingly easy to live only in a world of personal dreams, a realm from which hard reality has largely been vanquished.” Again, I ask, ‘what world is he living in?’ The world of Lewis Black, I guess. Black says that he has never been Mr. Happy, and after reading Wilson’s book, he feels a “lot better about myself. It almost made me happy,” And therein lies the rub. If being unhappy makes you happy, then quite possibly you are not “deep or soulful” enough to be part of Wilson’s hypothesis. Attaining happiness is not just for soulless rubes, as Wilson seems to believe.
At one time I would have embraced Wilson and his theory that serious things are no longer serious if happiness enters the equation. But there is that place, that temperate zone where we are neither grinning idiots nor doleful intellectuals—that place that Emerson described, where we “can expect nothing”, then be “fully thankful” when we receive something.