Skip to main content

AGAINST HAPPINESS

By Eric G. Wilson

Farrar Straus & Giroux/

Sarah Crichton, 163 pages, $22

THE HOW OF HAPPINESS

A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want

By Sonja Lyubomirsky

Penguin Press, 366 Pages, $31

According to Eric Wilson, author of the potent little polemic Against Happiness, melancholy will soon go the way of rickets and scurvy, once pesky scourges easily eradicated by modern science. With a squirt between the brows and the right balance of meds, you can transform yourself from a ruminating insomniac into the life of the party. This is not good news for Wilson. Nor is it good news for people who prefer to stew, pace and ponder, far away from the shiny, happy people whose brains are benumbed by too much Prozac and Leo Buscaglia. If you think the world is being overrun by zombie Pollyannas intent on spreading their insidious joy, Against Happiness will gladden your heart.

Wilson describes our narcotized culture as a House of Horrors version of happiness. "[W]at do we say to those ubiquitous guises of our contemporary scene, those appearances Botoxed to the max? You catch these smooth and expressionless faces walking down a city street. You can find no trace of existence in these frozen masks. ... you might actually see this person for what he is - a husk, nothing but an unfilled form." He adds that this "quest for happiness at the expense of sadness, this obsession with joy without tumult, is dangerous, a deeply troubling loss of the real."

Wilson is not talking about the clinically depressed or the truly insane, those for whom modern medicine is a godsend. He is talking about the whiners and perfectionists, those perpetual avoiders of life's little discomforts who self-medicate in the name of bypassing a state he calls "generative melancholia."

With a touch of the lawyer in his poetic prose, Wilson, who teaches English at Wake Forest University, argues on behalf of our spiritual down cycles, stating that our sorrowful intellectuals and profound philosophers find their best ideas in the dark, and that is what ultimately brings them joy. "Melancholia is the profane ground out of which springs the sacred," he writes, citing the work of famous depressives such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

"Melancholic" is, arguably, a much prettier word than "alcoholic." And it's no secret that depression, booze and angst are often essential ingredients (in varying quantities) in the Chicken Soup for the Artist's Soul. Wilson even admits that he's "being overly generous to these destructive types because of what they've left behind." But perhaps it would be wiser to note that these artists were able to produce their magnificent work not because they were sad addicts but despite the fact that they were.

However, if you're not interested in the regenerative qualities of melancholy, The How of Happiness might be just what the shrink ordered. According to University of California Riverside psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, happy people live longer, give more, have more energy and are more likely to get married, and people generally like having them around. If you want to be all these things (and lots of people do), then you can follow her (not so simple) step-by-step formula to "attain real and lasting happiness."

There are, natch, 12 steps, each involving a "happiness activity." Among them: expressing gratitude, cultivating optimism and avoiding overthinking. In fact, three risk factors for depression are poor social skills, shyness and excessive dependency on others - hallmarks of the morose. Practising acts of kindness, savouring joy and learning to forgive are surefire ways, she says, to overcome Self.

It isn't surprising that activities such as these lead to a greater sense of well-being. But before you get to the 12 activities, there are several complicated tests to fill out: the Subjective Happiness Scale, the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale, the Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic and, finally, The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. So much for getting over Self.

If you're not up for tests and steps, her research into what comprises happiness is a fascinating journey into the link between increased altruism and diminished compulsion. Lyubomirsky says happiness consists of three components: 40 per cent is intentional activity (which her 12 steps address); 50 per cent is determined by your natural "set point" - some people are born happier than others; but a mere 10 per cent is determined by life's circumstances. Turns out death, marriage, divorce, taxes, moving, making money and getting thin have little impact on long-term happiness. It's ultimately determined by your ability to let go, help others and forgive.

Lyubomirsky cites the stirring example of Amy Biehl, a young Californian who was murdered by a mob in Cape Town, where she was volunteering during the South African elections in 1993. Her parents not only forgave the murderers, they offered one of them a job when he got out of jail. I met the Biehls two years after Amy's death, and remember them as two of the happiest people I have ever met.

Some of the anecdotes lapse into the ridiculously corny, such as the man who set his watch to vibrate five times a day to remind himself to smile. You don't imagine emulating that guy so much as punching his (happy) face.

But my biggest complaint about The How of Happiness is its difficulty. There's too much to do, too much to think about, too many steps and substeps to memorize and quizzes to fill out, not to mention the subsequent "Five Hows" to reinforce your commitment to the pursuit of happiness. If you bought this book to jar yourself out of your misery, its sheer intricacy might keep you couch-bound, clutching a box of Kleenex.

So if you're feeling down, I suggest you take Wilson's advice and embrace it. But whichever path you choose, both authors caution against avoiding the character-building qualities of true melancholia. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, a great fan of our postmodern blues: Whatever you shove down into the basement of your subconscious will come back to you as fate. Ahh. Something for happy melancholics to look forward to.

Lisa Gabriele is the author of Tempting Faith DiNapoli. Her new novel, Almost Archer Sisters, will be published in the fall.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF BLISS

One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

By Eric Weiner, Twelve, 329 pages, $29.99

Eric Weiner, a fixture at National Public Radio and a former New York Times correspondent, calls himself a "mope." To escape his Eeyoreistic self, he embarks on a year-long tour of the world's shiny, happy places, armed with insights from the newish field of positive psychology.

On one level, the book is a jaunt to Bhutan, India, Thailand and, lest you think no happiness possible except in the Eastern realms, Switzerland, the Netherlands and, remarkably, Iceland. Like Harry Lime, he finds the Swiss smug while Icelanders revel in possibility, sometimes alcoholically fuelled. He examines whether social equality, wealth and cultural diversity are essential to a nation's sense of well-being, and finds it ain't necessarily so. Relying heavily not only on his own adventures, but the stories of people he meets, Weiner ensures that his readers, at least, are likely to be happier for having encountered this witty, probing work.

BLUBBERLAND

The Dangers of Happiness

By Elizabeth Farrelly, MIT Press, 219 pages, $19.95

Farrelly, a leading Australian architectural critic, looks at what she calls, winningly, "superfluous superfluity" - big houses filled with toys, an SUV and a Beamer out front, a big investment account, a beach cottage, Botoxed faces, elaborate home-entertainment systems. These are the things we usually suppose will make us happy. But they don't: They're blubber, and environmentally (and probably psychologically) devastating. Farrelly argues that we need to think smaller, build human-scale cities and public spaces, abandon conspicuous consumption and eat less. A powerful voice is joined to our most important argument.

Martin Levin

Interact with The Globe