Front cover - High on Low book reviewHigh on Low: Harnessing the Power of Unhappiness

Wilhelm Schmid (Translated by Karen Leeder)

[Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc., 106 pages]

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most difficult to grasp. That is what I kept thinking as I read the book, High on Low: Harnessing the Power of Unhappiness, by Wilhelm Schmid. Smaller than a pocketbook-sized paperback, appearing more like a sweet self-help guide or a gift book than a serious tome, High on Low nevertheless surprises on nearly every page. Rather than listing the seven or ten techniques that will ensure happiness, as nearly all self-help guides do, writer Wilhelm Schmid, a bestselling author and German philosopher, argues that we instead need to make room for unhappiness in our lives.

Schmid recommends that we do this not only because unhappiness, ill-health and pain are natural parts of life and that we cannot know joy without experiencing its opposite, sorrow. He also argues that only in periods of melancholy do we ever move forward to create more meaning in our lives. And meaning, he writes, is what we ought to be searching for, instead of happiness, which Schmid claims is dependent upon luck.

In many ways, we have turned being happy into a duty, he says. Our over-emphasis on happiness and positive thinking makes us feel like failures when we can’t be cheerful. In turn, Schmid says this causes even small problems to become major upsets. Instead, Schmid believes that allowing ourselves to be unhappy enables us to look more deeply into the causes of our problems, which, in turn, can help us make improvements in our lives.

While this is the case for individuals, Schmid also applies these ideas to society at large. For instance, the over-emphasis on positive thinking, he believes, led to the global financial crisis, when people refused to heed warnings that the real estate and financial markets were one day going to drop.

In addition to arguing for the need to make room for unhappiness, rather than always trying to banish it, Schmid spends much of this wonderfully insightful and surprisingly positive book looking at what he calls “the art of living,” discussing how to bring meaning into one’s life. Unlike the often simplistic recommendations found in many self-help books, these philosophical musings written for a general audience feel more like a rare chance to sit and listen to the advice of a wise elder. High on Low is a little book that can be read and reread, something to pull out and ponder on rainy, melancholy days.

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by Patty Somlo
image: Portrait of a Woman Holding Happy and Unhappy via Shutterstock