Eric G. Wilson warns that the American quest for endless happiness is dangerous and boring.

Eric G. Wilson warns that the American quest for endless happiness is dangerous and boring.

In "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy," Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, argues that when "happy types" run away from sorrow they cut themselves off from a full life — and from the wellspring of creativity.

In a recent interview, Wilson talked about his anti-happiness crusade.

Q: The book's written as a challenge. Why did you choose to write it with that tone?

A: I feel strongly that Americans' addiction to happiness is dangerous. In some ways, it's leading to a kind of superficiality and vapidity that cuts away a lot of contemplation and creativity.

Ultimately, I feel the book says (that) to stand against happiness, to push against happiness, is to open up the possibility for what I call joy, which I distinguish from happiness. To me, joy grows out of melancholy, the idea being that a fully lived, fully human life is a complex mixture between joy and sorrow, and that's ultimately what makes us human. So my book is really a call to live a deeper, possibly more ecstatic, energized, vital life by sitting with and by exploring melancholy.

Q: How does sorrow feed creativity?

A: The early 19th-century poet John Keats, in his poem "Ode on Melancholy," says that we can only understand the beauty of the world when we have a keen sense that the world is dying.

This sounds kind of strange, but, if you think of it, a real rose is more beautiful than a porcelain rose because it is in a state of decay.

Q: In other words, if you don't have any sense of unrest, why change things?

A: Precisely. In some ways, melancholy is a constant rebellion against the given, the status quo. If you don't have melancholy, you would basically say the world as it is, is perfectly fine.

Q: When you're talking about "happy types," you write they're afraid of death, but also, in a way, afraid of life — that at the base of the desire for happiness is a fear of strong emotion or experiences.

A: If life is a polarity, a rich interplay between opposites, then to want to be happy all the time is essentially to want sun with no moon, day with no night, up with no down. It leads to a kind of half-life that is less living life than performing life, trying to conform to the American expectation that one should be happy most of the time.