Eric G. Wilson is a professor of English at Wake Forest University. This essay is adapted from his book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, being published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
At the behest of well-meaning friends, I have purchased books on how to be happy. I have tried to turn my chronic scowl into a bright smile. I have attempted to become more active, to get out of my dark house and away from my somber books and participate in the world of meaningful action. I have taken up jogging, the Latin language, and the chair of a university English department. I have fostered the drive to succeed in my career. I have bought an insurance policy, a PalmPilot, and a cellphone. I have taken an interest in Thanksgiving and Christmas, in keeping my hair trimmed short, and in meticulously ironing my clothes. I have viewed Doris Day and Frank Capra movies. I have feigned interest in the health of others. I have dropped into the habit of saying "great" and "wonderful" as much as possible. I have pretended to take seriously certain good causes designed to make the world a better place. I have contemplated getting a dog. I have started eating salads. I have tried to discipline myself in nodding knowingly. I have tried to be mindful of others but ended up pissed as hell. I have written a book on the hard-earned optimism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have undertaken yoga. I have stopped yoga and gone into tai chi. I have thought of going to psychiatrists and getting some drugs. I have quit all of this and then started again and then once more quit. Now I plan to stay quit. The road to hell is paved with happy plans.