The Cult of Be Happy, Don’t Worry

earthThe science of psychology, such as it is, is catching up with the intuitions of depth psychology and the probings of literary critical theory. Depression is about to have another day.

A new book by Svend Brinkmann, a psychology professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University, is called Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, is just out. In it, Brinkmann says that our insistence have-a-good-dayism is “almost totalitarian” in its rejection of the tempests of being, e.g., sadness at loss, depression generally (which we embrace only with a happiness cure: tea, but rarely any real empathy)–and anger is right out of there. It’s exactly happy-norming that the alt right cucks are using when they say “quit being a sore loser.” Brighten up, lighten up, it’s all great again! Putting the squeeze on unstable emotions is an attempt to reduce the friction of resistance. It works, sometimes.

The happiness project streamlines workplace personalities, from what I can gather from this article, so I’m intrigued by Brinkmann’s stance, as resisting ontological norming seems like a very good idea to me.

Welcome as a new critique is, this is a familiar wedge of resistance to readers of depth psychologist James Hillman, or really anyone who reads contemporary “literature” (scare quotes because I’m referring to a marketplace niche, not making a value judgment) including the likes of Charles Baxter, from whom I get the felicitous turn of phrase, the happiness project.

Baxter’s book, Burning Down the House, really intrigued me when I read it nearly 20 years ago. In it, Baxter probes the depths of “negative capability,” that idea John Keats had so many years ago, that we not only could but most assuredly should live with our doubts, our uncertainties, our insistent questions. And yet, she persisted… is precisely the heart and soul of negative capability, and threw that lineage of that lens, Baxter weaves not just a way of approaching the writing of fiction, but A Way, a sort of tao that serves as a guide to getting along in the world.

But if there was ever anyone who really embraced the Dark Side of the Psyche, it was James Hillman. Trained by Carl Jung, Hillman lived and taught in the U.S. for most of his life. He was a prose stylist to be reckoned with, and wrote from a deeply informed heart. Funny, that he seemed to subscribe to a sort of dualism, of mind and soul, or body and soul, when he was the epitome of the interdigitation of heart and head. He taught us as few have before or since to honor depression, to not fight it so much as work with it, explore it. Walking with the black dog is not for the feint of heart and Hillman, so compassionately cognizant of that fact, spent his life adumbrating “personages,” the beings within our beings who serve as guides, if we’re lucky, or as tricksters, provocateurs, champions, fantasy lovers, and on and on. The best place to start with Hillman is with his collection of essays and excerpts, A Blue Fire.

Hillman and Baxter come together in praising the power of the imagination; the imaginal, the depth psychologists call it. That place that is so otherwhere, yet just here, just now.

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