One of the issues we find most difficult to convey about the absurd is that circumstances don't matter. This is not debatable--if nothing matters, then it truly doesn't make a bit of difference whether you are sitting on an idyllic beach drinking a Mai Tai...or in some medieval dungeon being stretched on the rack. That is not to say we wouldn't choose one over the other; however, it is important to realize our preference for one does not mean it is objectively better.
Consider the following question: Is it better to be free or in jail? Most people would answer the former; indeed, many might say this is a case in which one option is objectively better. Who, after all, would prefer confinement to freedom?
Well...glad you asked. In fact, what got us thinking about this issue was a scene in The Shawshank Redemption, in which an inmate who has been in prison for 50 years (Brooks) is released from jail, and finds the outside world so unbearable that he hangs himself. In other words, he not only finds prison preferable to freedom, but considers freedom so horrible that life is not worth living.
The point, of course, is that everything we think of in terms of "better" and "worse" is simply personal preference masquerading as truth. To most people, the thought of life in prison is an unimaginable hardship; to Brooks, it was the only way to live.
Arguments that Brooks was not in his "right mind" because he was "institutionalized"--in other words, freedom is better, but Brooks can't see it because he has been brainwashed--quickly fall apart. Indeed, even our original example--that of a choice between a pleasant beach and a medieval dungeon--is not so simple as it appears. Would a sadomasochist really choose the beach?
Again, the point is not that most people would not choose one or the other, but rather that such choices represent physiological and biological factors (e.g., people who enjoy pain are more likely to die young and thus leave fewer offspring than those that don't) rather than some external truth waiting to be discovered.
Now, this may seem much ado about nothing. After all, we can all agree most people would rather be on the beach than in the dungeon, so who cares if one isn't really "better" than the other. Can't we just accept that for for most people the beach is the better option...and leave it at that?
Ah...were that things were this simple. The problem with such a stance is that once we introduce any sort of experience "rankings" into our thought process, we are laying the groundwork for conflict and unhappiness. It has long been established, for example, that humans tend to overestimate both the joy received from some "good" event and the pain suffered from something "bad." In other words, humans are remarkably adaptive creatures (more so than we realize), and thus we tend to see future events (big raise, new house, loss of a loved one) as more consequential than they end up being in practice.
Thus, by investing our happiness in external factors we doom ourselves to unhappiness. First, no matter what we consider "good" or "important," it is of course impossible to maintain that state of affairs all the time. But even if it were, once we adapted to it we would find ourselves no happier than before. This is why people in California are no happier than people in the rest of the US, despite having better weather and (in theory) a more laid-back attitude and approach to life.
It is also why the correlation between happiness and material well-being breaks down shortly after people reach a very basic level of subsistence--in other words, once we have enough to eat and shelter, more stuff doesn't make us any happier. According to Charles Murray: "Happiness is very low until subsistence is reached, rises very steeply immediately thereafter, but quickly levels off as subsistence is left behind."
As Inigo has noted in some of his recent posts, the concept of everything being relative also becomes readily apparent when one explores other cultures, where people may take pleasure in rituals (to choose an extreme example--cannibalism) we find repulsive. Are we right and they wrong? How would we know? If we were raised in their culture, would we have different beliefs?
The bottom line is that this notion of objective truth is not only false, but ultimately quite destructive. In short, people strive for whatever they believe is "good," or "meaningful," only to still be unhappy once they achieve it, ad nauseum.
A fellow blogger explored a similar theme recently, and concluded thus:
"What is the way out? I'm not entirely sure, but what I am practicing is: To question one's biological and social goals, and to risk meaninglessness, and then to come upon contentment in which there is an inherent significance to living and experiencing, and not an imposed one on the content of one's experiencing."
We could not agree more. Those who rely on circumstances for happiness are doomed to a never-ending cycle of fruitless striving for unachievable goals, an endless struggle against (ultimately) the dying of the light. We, on the other hand, embrace this reality and the boundless freedom that comes with it--the freedom to be content regardless of circumstance.