Is there a case against happiness?

Elvis is one of the greatest pop stars of all time, yet he struggled with finding happiness.
Elvis is one of the greatest pop stars of all time, yet he struggled with finding happiness.
Joe Corrigan/Getty Images

On a July afternoon in 1953, Elvis Presley strolled into Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., and crooned "My Happiness" into a chest-high, silver microphone. After ascending the throne of global superstardom, paunchy, jumpsuit-clad Elvis gulped down prescription drugs by the handful and stuck close to home. Twenty-four years after he recorded that first ballad, The King died alone in his bathroom.

Despite his cultural caricature, Elvis was the quintessential tortured artist. His snarling lips and gyrating hips redefined American music, and he put out more than 70 albums and 100 singles during his prolific career. Yet, for all the fame, his biography reads like a tragedy.

When you think about history's most cherished writers, artists and musicians, the Elvis plotline becomes redundant. From to Beethoven to Billie Holiday, there's a cracked foundation beneath that glossy veneer of celebrity. And while people today crave fame and the adoration that comes with it, could it be that a bit of sadness and despair is necessary to achieve greatness? Positive psychologists and others who study the human art of happiness would quickly shake their heads in disagreement. The path to life satisfaction is marked by joy; positive, healthy relationships boost longevity. With one in five American adults suffering from clinical depression, happiness has become a full-blown industry.

Amid this happiness boom that started in the 1990s, some smiles have changed into doubtful grimaces. Like other animals, humans are endowed with a spectrum of emotions ranging from irate to ecstatic, and surely, there's a purpose for having and expressing both positive and negative emotions. Even classical physicians recognized the natural place of sadness in human nature and included melancholia as one of the four humors [source: Wilson].

After all, sadness and hardship can sweeten the good things in life. Consider the difference between drinking a glass of water with dinner and having one after exercising on a hot day. Sweaty and exhausted, that crisp, refreshing water tastes better than a fine wine.

In other words, are we striving too hard to become too happy?