Last updated on April 2nd, 2019 at 11:30 pm

Front cover - High on Low book review

HIGH ON LOW: Harnessing the power of unhappiness

Wilhelm Schmid

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

These days, it’s a commonly held belief that the happier we are, the more fulfilled we’ll be. Makes sense, right? Perhaps to you or I, but philosopher Wilhelm Schmid doesn’t think so. In fact, he believes that a moderate dose of unhappiness can actually lead to more life-fulfillment! That’s the basic premise of his recent book, High on Low: Harnessing the Power of Unhappiness.

Schmid doesn’t mean to say that we need to be glum all the time, nor does he think it would be beneficial for us to purposely cause ourselves to be unhappy. Instead, he explains that we must learn to appreciate the (naturally occurring) “polarities” of life—such as health and sickness, life and death, or joy and pain, just to name a few polar opposites—without letting them control us, causing our actions to swing this way and that.

By cultivating this kind of appreciation, only then can we find “philosophical” or “enduring” happiness (a type of happiness that’s not dependent on outer circumstances) and meaning, something he feels is missing from our contemporary chase after material goods and thrill-a-minute experiences in the name of finding happiness. Schmid’s talk about “polarities” is strikingly reminiscent of Aristotle’s theory of the Golden Mean developed thousands of years ago, which states that the balance between two characteristic extremes such as good or evil, timid or foolhardy, or even lazy or energetic, is almost always the state of being that’s best for us.

When Schmid first proposes the idea that a bit of unhappiness can actually act as a benefit, this sounds, frankly, quite weird. However, as you read through his book, you may realize that his theories are very well-thought-out, and his basic premise isn’t as radical as it appears to be at the outset. I found one of his strongest ideas to be the notion that being less than perfectly positive may allow you to go inward to engage in healthy contemplation, as well as allowing you to perceive potential problems and come up with workable solutions. This point resonated with me since unhappiness has, at times, enhanced my ability to do those things within my own life.

On a related note, Schmid also makes the distinction between melancholia, the contemplative kind of sadness often experienced by writers, artists and other creatives, and the relative apathy of clinical depression, a distinction that’s often ignored or even unrecognized in our society as we attempt to medicate all negative thoughts and feelings away. I, personally, have quite a bit of experience with the melancholic state of mind.

Schmid’s perspective is an interesting one for anyone who enjoys the art of contemplation to be exposed to, even if you ultimately end up disagreeing with him, since his views challenge common philosophies of the recent past and present about happiness, the “good life,” and human “flourishing” (to borrow another term from Aristotle). Psychology, philosophy and self-help shelves in the majority of our bookstores are lined with manuals on how to achieve as much happiness as possible, but this philosopher is able to offer up something different that may be able to help an individual who just can’t connect with a hedonistic culture. I do feel, however, that what Schmid calls unhappiness may best be referred to as “realism,” as, within this context, it seems that’s what it really describes. Perhaps we’ve been so taken in by the pursuit of fleeting happiness that even the philosophers among us have been conditioned to call anything that’s not 100 percent optimistic “unhappy”!

Read more on this topic in EQUANIMITY: A higher state of happiness»

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