Sunday, February 28, 2010

Happiness from Within, Unhappiness from Without

“We all carry within us our prisons.”
- Albert Camus

Most of us live in a sort of unthinking routine. We get up in the morning. We eat breakfast and read the paper. We go to work. We come home. We have dinner. We go to sleep. And the next day we do it all over again.

It’s a comfortable pattern. It has its own rhythms. We are barely conscious of the ceaseless passing of days. But then one day we start wonder “Why?” This when all things begin, says Camus. The chain of daily existence is broken. This is when some of us will experience feelings of the absurdity of existence.

Those feelings run along familiar grooves, Camus thought. Among them: An awareness of the inevitable grinding away of our physical existence, knowing the end is our inevitable death. A sense that the powerful forces of nature mock our frail physical existence; that there is this big, incomprehensible universe that is unmoved by anything we do. A feeling of being alone or apart from other people, even a sense of alienation from “self,” a questioning of what is self, like lingering over an old photograph of “yourself” and wondering who that was, doubting it was the same person who gazes at the photograph today.

All of these things Camus writes about. And though they may sound depressing, Camus turned it all on its head. He instead leads us to embrace absurdity. And in this embrace is a release, a kind of liberation. He stresses the joy of life in the flesh, of living in the moment.

Happiness or equanimity, then, comes from within.


But modern life conspires against this idea. That is the thesis behind a new book titled “The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It hard to Be Happy” by Michael Foley. If happiness comes from within, then unhappiness comes from without.

We caught this review and found the idea of the book fascinating. After all, we’ve made the same case on this blog.

As the reviewer (who seems to get the idea of the absurd) writes:

“Modern life, Foley argues, has made things worse, deepening our cravings and at the same time heightening our delusions of importance as individuals. Not only are we rabid in our unsustainable demands for gourmet living, eternal youth, fame and a hundred varieties of sex, but we have been encouraged – by a post-1970s "rights" culture that has created a zero-tolerance sensitivity to any perceived inequality, slight or grievance – into believing that to want something is to deserve it. As Foley puts it: "Is it possible that a starving African farmer has less sense of injustice than a middle-aged western male who has never been fellated?"

(Well… that’s an interesting question!)

We agree with the idea that society is decidedly anti-absurd. It wants us to buy things. It wants us to realize our potential – a potential defined by societal norms like having physical things… a nice house, a new car (you deserve it!), a sleek body, a college education, a promising career and on and on it goes…

The futility of the ceaseless striving is obvious when we reflect that our drive for these things is never satisfied. As the reviewer goes on to write:

“It's not even as if we want what we have once we've got it. Foley calls this "the glamour of potential", a relentless churning of desire by which the things we have are devalued by the things we want next. The only way out of the churn is "detachment", an idea as compelling to the Greek and Roman stoics as to Sartre and Camus: if you can't change the world, don't let it change you.”

Many great minds have arrived at the same general conclusions. Happiness is within and we make ourselves miserable with unmet desires. The great point of absurdity is that you find happiness in the absurdity of existence itself.

The book’s opening chapter is titled “The Absurdity of Happiness” and the last chapter is titled “The Happiness of Absurdity.” Sounds like a nice progression. And it also sounds like something we have to read if only for the pleasure of finding a fellow traveler in this absurd world!


  1. It's a bit difficult to acquire this book at the moment in the US. I ended up ordering the book from a UK seller via one of the big bookseller aggregator sites.

    I was going to say that it's absurdly difficult to acquire the book, but it isn't. What is absurdly difficult is settling on a good nom de blog for this site. I may play around a bit 'till I find one that fits...

    --Mysterious Melvin (AKA Anonymous)

  2. This blog entry speaks to me specifically this day. This morning, my anger at having to put up with another Monday morning of doing the same exact things I do every other work day, in a monochromatic culture of dull conformity and 21st Century American Bullshit, where my only diversion at the end of the day may be a stupid TV show or a few beers, just like it always is, lead me to throw a temper tantrum that scared the dogs. Luckily I was alone in the house so that no one else had to tolerate my spoiled brat tirade (except the dogs, and I apologized to them (they were happy with that, as usual)). At the same time I'm doing this, my intellectual side is telling me how useless it is to be angry; I've got the best house, I'm not wanting for anything except something different to wake up to once in a while, like I did in previous jobs I had. But then, if I did suddenly have novel day-today experiences, I might at some point get pissed off at that too. I can't win.
    These episodes of anger are far and fewer between than they used to be; I've gotten much better at living the absurd life of satisfaction, but the personal conflict I have with the monotony of average American life will never leave me. These are the days that I think I'd be happier throwing it all away and living under an overpass somewhere. It's something else, I tell you.
    Uh, I've gotta go, the boss is calling me to keep pushing the rock up the hill.....

  3. There is nothing wrong with getting angry once in awhile.

  4. ...but there is something wrong with scaring your dogs for no good reason.

    There's a heck of a lot of different things you could do after work besides watch stupid TV and drink beer. Maybe read one of the legions of books this site recommends? Go out for live music?

    There's also a lot more choices available to you than grinning and bearing it vs. ditching it all and living under a bridge, but you know that...

    It's true you can't win, though. I'm not certain about many things, but I am positive that life is not a game to be won or lost.

    --Mysterious Melvin

  5. Thank you Arthur and Melvin -
    My post was just a snapshot of what I was feeling yesterday. I usually have a good reason for scaring the dogs, and I don't drink beer every night, only every other night! (insert smiley face here). I feel much better today.
    Seriously, my inner psyche is fairly well-rounded as is my intellect, and the path behind me is as well worn as the path ahead is shiney and new. So, with that settled, or not...
    Is this the therapy site?

  6. I dunno... I kind of hope not.

    Judging from the parts of the site's history I've read, it seems to redefine itself as it goes along.

    I like to think of it a smoke filled cafe in post-war France, except there aren't any French people, and the proprietors only show up when they feel like it, and the coffee...

    ...well, the less said about the coffee, the better.

    --Mysterious Mel

  7. I like the coffee.

  8. I like your posts, Arthur. I also liked the longer, more enigmatic ones, but the one liners sizzle.

    Maybe we should actually comment on the original blog post.

    Obviously, I was interested enough in the post and the linked review that I bought the book.

    ...but what's that stuff in the second to last paragraph about? "Great" minds come the same conclusion. The "great" point of absurdity. I think the greatness protests too much. Isn't the absurd man completely unimpressed by intellectual stature?

    I've heard the coffee's effing great at the Proust blog.

    --Mysterious Mel