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Making Room for Sadness

Eric Wilson, professor of English at Wake Forest University, wanted to become a happier person. He at least wanted a smile on his face, rather than the scowl people were used to seeing. Friends urged him on to a sunny disposition. He purchased books to become happy, watched only uplifting movies, and inserted "Great!" and "Wonderful!" into his conversations. But none of these things helped, and the professor went back to being his usual melancholy self. Turning against what he calls "the happiness movement," he wrote the book Against Happiness. He believes Americans are fixated on happiness—to the extent of even fostering "a craven disregard" for whatever shows a mere hint of melancholy.

The happiness movement bloomed in the 1990s, motivated by scientific studies on the brain and the rise of "positive psychology." But now there's a backlash against a philosophy that says "normal sadness is something to be smothered, even shunned." Further study has actually discovered that "being happier is not always better." Those who know some discontent are motivated to improve their lot in life and the condition of their community.

"If you're totally satisfied with your life and with how things are going in the world, you don't feel very motivated to work for change," says Ed Diener, an author who has written a book similar to Wilson's. Deiner notes that when experiencing a negative mood, "you become more analytical, more critical, and more innovative. You need negative emotions, including sadness, to direct your thinking."

All of this seems to echo something Solomon wrote long ago: "There's a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance." The greatest teacher of them all—Christ—was also quick to point out that those who mourn are those who are blessed indeed.

Happiness has its place, as does sadness—and they both have a place in the wider sphere of joy.

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