The Dragonslayer pointed me to a very interesting essay by Eric Wilson: In Praise of Melancholy, based on his new book “Against Happiness.” In his essay, Wilson eloquently argues that all that pursuit of happiness that we’ve been doing might not all that’s cracked up to be. According to the Pew Research Center, we are a pretty happy bunch (“almost 85 percent of Americans believe that they are very happy or at least pretty happy”). Yet, we are facing problems of epic proportions, many of which could lead to the end of the Earth, at least as we know it currently. Wilson suggests that if we were a bit more melancholy, we’d actually do something. That is where his distinction between melancholy and depression comes in: while both have a layer of sadness, depression leads to inaction, to withdrawal. Melancholy, in contrast, generates “active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.” It is a force propelling us forward, a call to action to do something about those things that are making us sad. By missing this distinction, Wilson cautions, our happiness threatens to turn into the smile of Botox: it looks nice but it is artificial. Wilson’s definition of melancholy contains an element of meaning-making, as Eric Maisel would call it, again a forward moving force. We are trying to make sense of the sadness we are feeling, instead of hiding from it.
There is another ingredient here: fear. Fear is what makes us run away from the challenges intrinsic to melancholy and lets us drift into depression because we fail to make the meaning out of our sadness. Then we get quick fixes for the depression instead of using the force in melancholy to better our life.
It is a difficult balance: to utilize melancholy to move ourselves forward, to experience life and our own authenticity and to fall into the abyss of depression. However, I will try to start embracing my melancholy, to see if I can figure out the distinction to depression and harness the forward moving force rather than letting myself fall into the dark pit of depression. We’ll see what happens!