Sorrow prepares you for joy.
It violently sweeps everything out of your house,
So that new joy can find space to enter.
It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart,
So that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place.
The Western notion that happiness must be achieved at all costs, leave people disappointed and even miserable when they can’t become happy. They feel guilty thinking that they fall short as if happiness is something out there waiting to be found, something that is an end point, or the ultimate goal in life. As Viktor Frankl (1984) wrote in his influential book, “…it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy’.”
Sadly, one of the drawbacks of the modern cultures is that the pursuit of happiness and being happy is perceived as more important than anything else. Happiness feels good and it does us good as it brings a lot of advantages. Yet, life is not only about happiness; every day, we are confronted with inevitable disappointments, unpredictable events, and sorrow. That’s why there is nothing wrong about feeling sad from time to time. You’re not crazy if you want to feel some anger, some fear. Feeling bad is not a sin, is not a sickness, and is definitely not something to be ashamed of. The dark side of human experience and all the negative feelings we have are real; they are perfectly normal and natural part of our being. Life is full of suffering and tragedy. It’s not bright all the time, and it won’t be. There will be much anxiety and despair. So, in order to be happy, aiming the maximum pleasure and minimum pain doesn’t work. A life built on the satisfaction of pleasures in such a meta-modernistic life is a deception, for we satisfy one desire, another comes; then we invent new desires. Need for pleasure becomes addictive. There is absolutely more to existential contentment than optimum satisfaction and pleasure.
The real paradox is that suffering does not impede happiness; rather, our negative experiences can lead us to a happy life if we learn how to embrace them and how to regulate them. Feeling pleasant emotions is absolutely good, but an existence free of unpleasant emotions is impossible. Suppressing the feelings that we don’t like and sweeping them under the rug may make us relieved for some time, but it’s deceitful as we will experience suffering in the long run. Happiness cannot exist unless we open ourselves to everything that can happen in life, including suffering and pain. To understand happiness, we need to accept sadness. As Nietzsche said, “…happiness and misfortune are brother and sister, and twins, who grow tall together, or, as with you, remain small together!” (Nietzsche, 1974. pp. 270). There is no such thing as never-ending happiness. Just as too much sadness or anxiety which are not regulated can leave someone stuck or lead to depression, too much happiness can be detrimental as well. Similarly, the good life is not necessarily the by-product of high levels of happiness. How can we learn about ourselves, about others, and the world without experiencing any challenge, any suffering? Change at the existential level is a necessity and it comes only with facing the personal and societal problems, with being willing to confront the tragedies of the world around us and the existential problems.
Human living is a Sisyphean task, Camus (1975) wrote, and explained the resemblance of our lives with that of the mythological king Sisyphus who was given, by the Gods, the eternal punishment of rolling a large stone up a hill. Every time Sisyphus reaches the top, the stone rolls back down; it becomes a never-ending, repetitive task. This Sisyphean task became synonymous with what people have to do every day – senseless work. For Camus, rolling the stone up the hill and seeing it come down again is actually what challenges us, it’s what helps us grow and flourish. Sisyphus has nothing but to accept the absurdity to overcome it. It’s not definitely a comfortable state, or a state full of pleasure, but a state which teaches us how to live fully. It shows that a good life is possible even with the struggles as long as one has the inner strength used against the absurd. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus says, “There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night”; but concludes on an optimistic note: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The idea that people should feel good and that life should be free of stressors has become the norm. However, such social pressures to be happy all the time can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. In modern cultures, such as the Nordic countries, where happiness levels are the highest as compared to other countries, one reason why the rate of suicide is also very high is probably “social comparison” (Daly, Oswald, Wilson, & Wu, 2011). People who feel negative emotions, who don’t feel satisfied with their lives, compare themselves with the social expectations about happiness and feel that the world is unjust because most of the people around them are happy and they themselves are not. Research, indeed, tells us that individuals who experienced more negative emotions and also believed that others disapprove these negative emotions felt more loneliness (Bastian et al., 2015).
There is no point resisting our nature or pretend that our shadows do not exist. After all, negative emotions act as an internal system which provides information about what is happening around us, and to us. They can even have considerable positive outcomes. Some dissatisfaction with our lives motivates us for change, some confusion and self-doubt may increase our performance; sadness may make us more alert to details, give us the opportunity to reflect and process experiences, and increase our creativity (Andrews & Thomson, 2009; Runco, 2007; Wheatley, 2002). To live, is to experience the full range of emotions.
Associating the good life with feeling good all the time, or even most of the time, limits us. A good life requires the pursuit of meaning and purpose by embracing both the positive and negative experiences. Mastering the pain inherent in this world is one of the most important things that we can do to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. A good life also requires an authentic self. Minimizing and ignoring our weaknesses, our limitations will not take us to authenticity. A good life requires freedom. And to become free, we need to accept life with its meaninglessness, and we need to accept ourselves.
Andrews, P., & Thomson Jr, J. (2009). The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychological Review, 116(3), 620-654.
Bastian, B., Koval, P., Erbas, Y., Houben, M., Pe, M., & Kuppens, P. (2015). Sad and alone: Social expectations for experiencing negative emotions are linked to feelings of loneliness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(5), 496-503.
Camus, A. (1975). The myth of Sisyphus (J. O’Brien, Trans.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Daly, M. C., Oswald, A. J., Wilson, D. and Wu, S. (2011). Dark contrasts: The paradox of high rates of suicide in happy places. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 80(3), 435- 442.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Nietzsche, F. (1974). The gay science. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Random House. (Original work published 1882)
Runco, M. A. (2007). To understand is to create: An epistemological perspective on human nature and personal creativity. In R. Richards (Ed.), Everyday creativity and new views on human nature, 91-107. Washington: APA.
Wheatley, K. F. (2002). The potential benefits of teacher efficacy doubts for educational reform. Teaching and Teacher Education, 18, 5-22.
(This post was originally published in existentialcafe.com on 09.04.2017.)