Happiness and the Absurd


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“All nature teaches that man is born for happiness”

~Andre Gide

Yet we have never agreed on a single definition of happiness. Is it well being? Is it wealth? Is it the abundance of love and respect? As Homo sapiens evolved and inventions made life easier and more comfortable, sisyphuspeople discovered more free time… and their minds wandered. As people found protection from the merciless powers of nature, they found they are not entirely at the mercy of the Gods. And their minds wandered. Greek mythology tells the stories of industrious and brave men who stole the fire from the gods, cheated death, opposed and defeated supernatural beings. The realization that people were worthy of praise and happiness was born. The Myth of Sisyphus remains one of the most intriguing and genuinely philosophical readings of all. The simplicity of the plot and the complexity of the ideas depict the very paradox of human existence.

The Myth of Sisyphus is a eulogy of the strength of the human spirit and a lament of men’s ordeals.

Reflecting on the ancient story, Albert Camus draws an interesting parallel with the life and work of modern men reaching a profound conclusion: “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable;” “There is no sun without shadow … One always finds one’s burden again” (Albert Camus). Maybe these simple phrases manage to capture the complexity of our path on earth. Perhaps, the pursuit of happiness is the prophet of our catastrophe? Still, this is so hard to investigate because “happiness” is an elusive concept, meaning different things to different people. It might also transform its meaning for the individual throughout a lifetime. When people lived and slept under the naked skies, happiness might have been constant – found everywhere – in fertile rain and sunshine. As minds wandered, the definition of happiness escaped us.

Further, modern governmental structures make a conscious statement about happiness. “A major element of the American experiment in democracy has been to make the pursuit of happiness a conscious political goal – indeed, a responsibility of the government,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in “Flow”. People are granted the opportunity to pursue happiness and yet no one cares to define it. This might be considered careless, as some people, we would never want to meet in person, might have a disturbing understanding of happiness. In an active argument with positive psychologists, criminologists and clinical psychologists can tell many stories of disturbed individuals, whose concept of happiness we would hardly accept. Narcissistic personalities derive pleasure and joy from power over others, and exploit people with no remorse, being arrogant and self-centered. Antisocial personalities obtain enjoyment by manipulating and tormenting others (The DSM-IV). Schizophrenics, psychiatrists argue, are incapable of experiencing real happiness, as they often cannot distinguish reality from delusions.

What makes people happy and is it safe, and reasonable to encourage them to pursue it? In fact, if future governments continue this line of reasoning, they might agree on a single definition of happiness and try to enforce it. Then, if someone could manage too hook up people on happiness (certainly not impossible with the ideas of Post-Darwinian medicine), they would become careless and indifferent with joy – completely oblivious to the misfortunes of others.

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