How to be happy; the existential way

Updated: Feb 23

'In being happy we must recognise that Sun brings with it shadows.'

Words: Fin Quinlan

Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill in Camus' 'The Myth of Sisyphus'
Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill... again

Sisyphus, king of Corinth, cheats death. Thanatos (The ancient Greek personification of death) is sent by Zeus to be chained up and brought to the underworld. Yet when Thanatos arrives Sisyphus asks him to demonstrate how the chains work; Thanatos agrees and ends up having Sisyphus chain him together. With the embodiment of Death now in chains no mortal being could physically die. Understandably, this causes quite a few problems and after an embarrassing amount of time, the god of war Ares realised that no one was dying in his wars anymore. Annoyed that his wars were no longer as interesting without all the suffering and bloodshed Ares decides to hunt down Thanatos, trap Sisyphus and send him to the underworld.

But alas, conniving Sisyphus has got another trick up his sleeve. Before surrendering his life and dying he tells his wife to throw his dead body into the middle of the city square. Sisyphus, now in the Underworld, washes upon the banks of the river Styx and finds queen of the underworld Persephone. Explaining to Persephone that his wife has desecrated his body and that he needs to return to the overworld and ‘punish’ his wife Persephone ridiculously agrees and funnily enough Sisyphus refuses to come back to the underworld once he had been made living again.

This final act of cunning and hubris is too much for Zeus to handle. The god Hermes is sent to return Sisyphus back to the underworld and Zeus eternally punishes, sending him to push a boulder up a hill, every time the boulder reaches the top of the hill it rolls back down with Sisyphus sent to push it back up. This eternity of futile labour is, to Camus, a hideous punishment.

‘Happiness and the absurd are two Suns of the same Earth.’ Camus wrote in his 1943 philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Influenced by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Camus argues that life is absurd, and we can only be genuinely happy if we embrace that fact. The myth of Sisyphus is a metaphor for humanity's persistent struggle against the essential absurdity of life.

The idea of the absurd is the futility of a search for meaning in the inherent meaninglessness of the universe. Camus defines human nature as absurd and uses Sisyphus as the archetypal absurd man. Doomed for an eternity to forever roll a boulder up a hill Sisyphus should be imagined happy, not because he is (that we will never know) but instead because we need to embrace the absurdity of existence and futility of our actions to obtain true happiness.

From the outside, all we see of Sisyphus is a tortured figure, doomed to a life of repetition and meaninglessness. Yet, if Sisyphus makes peace with himself, he can obtain joy from meaninglessness. To Camus, in the descent of the boulder back down the hill Sisyphus can be happy, he can conjure images of earth and his memories in the short respite as he travels back down the hill, preparing for his next ascent. ‘if the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. The world is not too much.’. If Sisyphus were to hope that the boulder would balance on top of the hill then he would have only disappointment. To imagine him happy we must abandon the bigger picture and see that his happiness lies in his purpose, to push the boulder. To Camus we are responsible for our own happiness, it is not something we work for every day and then suddenly achieve. Instead it is only when we recognise the absurdity of life and become conscious of it that we can become happy and the master of our own fate.

This entire concept comes as a complete rejection of the traditional Greek concept of happiness. According to Aristotle, achievement consists of happiness and throughout life you accumulate goods that make you happy, not just in the material sense but also in the abstract as friends, knowledge, etc. To Camus, this misses the fact that there is joy in existence itself, attainable without external needs. By imagining Sisyphus happy we are pointing out that happiness shouldn’t just be rooted in a reminiscent activity it is also of the moment and organic in itself.

Imagine, if you will, the worst day you have ever experienced. A day where there was not an ounce of joy in existence from you waking up in the morning to falling asleep at night. And now imagine this day as a starting point for the rest of your life, it wouldn’t be foolish to assume that the next day will be comparatively better. Or, if it turns out even worse, then in that case, the first day was comparatively a good day.

Just like Sisyphus, we have to drag through life. Camus makes it clear, our absurd hero is not unlike ourselves ‘The workmen of today work every day in his life at the same tasks and this fate is no less absurd’ even going so far as to call Sisyphus the ‘proletarian of the Gods’.

To become happy, we must learn to contain our joy within. We must become absurd, take a leap of faith, and find joy in ourselves.

'The absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, the invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and prize of victory.’

In being happy we must recognise that Sun brings with it shadows and that without night we would never appreciate the day.

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