How to Find Joy in Your Sisyphean Existence
Life is full of boring, futile, absurd tasks. You’ll be happier if you can laugh at it all.
“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, was renowned in Greek mythology for his ingenuity; indeed, so clever was he that he cheated death twice, angering the gods. They took their revenge by condemning Sisyphus to eternal torment in the underworld: He had to roll a huge boulder up a hill. When he reached the top, the stone would roll back down to the bottom, and he would have to start all over, on and on, forever.
Nowadays, any task combining boredom, struggle, stress, and futility might be labeled “Sisyphean.” Think of so-called duct-tapers in customer service, who are tasked to deal with angry people all day, while the conditions that create those aggressive customers never change. I’ve used the word to describe my former job as a French-horn player in a professional symphony orchestra (which was approximately 99 percent boredom, 1 percent terror). One could even argue that all of life is Sisyphean: We eat to just get hungry again, and shower just to get dirty again, day after day, until the end.
Absurd, isn’t it? Albert Camus, the philosopher and father of a whole school of thought called absurdism, thought so. In his 1942 book The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus singles out Sisyphus as an icon of the absurd, noting that “his scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.” If that doesn’t make you want to reach for a filterless cigarette, I don’t know what will.
It would be easy to conclude that an absurdist view of life rules out happiness and leads anyone with any sense to despair at her very existence. And yet in his book, Camus concludes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” This may seem impossible, but in fact, this unexpected twist in Camus’ philosophy of life and happiness can help you change your perspective and see your daily struggles in a new, more equanimous way.
Endless suffering and unhappiness are centered as the overarching themes of life in philosophies from East to West. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Likewise, the 17th-century Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote of our “constant unhappiness” and futile efforts to fight it: “Men seek rest in a struggle against difficulties; and when they have conquered these, rest becomes insufferable.” In both traditions, happiness is but a brief punctuation to the sad rhythm of life.
With his absurdist views, you’d think Camus would endorse such a perspective of the natural awfulness of life. But he doesn’t—quite the contrary. In The Myth of Sisyphus, he acknowledges the futility of Sisyphus’s task, and its obvious parallels in our ordinary lives. But he argues that despite the hardships of this world, against all apparent odds, human beings regularly experience true happiness. People in terrible circumstances bask in love for one another. They enjoy simple diversions. Even Sisyphus was happy, according to Camus, because “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Simply put, he had something to keep him busy.
This conclusion leads Camus to a strategy for life that is utterly at odds with most of the existentialist philosophers of the past two centuries. Instead of feeling desperation at the futility of life, Camus tells us to embrace its ridiculousness. It’s the only way to arrive at happiness, the most absurd emotion of all under these circumstances. We shouldn’t try to find some cosmic meaning in our relentless routines—getting, spending, eating, working, pushing our own little boulders up our own little hills, he says. Instead, we should laugh uproariously at the fact that there is no meaning, and be happy anyway. Happiness, for Camus, is an existential declaration of independence. Instead of advising “Don’t worry, be happy,” he offers a rebellious “Tell the universe to go suck eggs, be happy.”
If embracing the ridiculous seems impossible to you, Camus says it’s only because of your pride. “Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness,” he wrote some years after his essay on Sisyphus. Further, “if they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.” The practical advice that follows is clear: If you have an inexplicable moment of happiness in a difficult world, don’t overthink it.
We should be able to do better than relying on serendipity for occasional happiness. In fact, each of us can consciously implement Camus’ absurdism in order to forge a happier life. Here are three practical ways to find joy in the ridiculous.
1. Stand up to your ennui.
When you feel existential dissatisfaction—that sense that everything is meaningless—giving up can feel like the easiest course of action. But this is where Camus’ call to rebel should really kick in. You can’t necessarily change your perception of the world, but, as I have written, you most certainly can change your response to that perception. Meet that feeling of despair with a personal motto, such as “I don’t know what everything means, but I do know I am alive right now, and I will not squander this moment.” Say it out loud so you can comprehend it fully and consciously.
2. Look for opportunities to do a little good.
One of the best ways to cultivate futility is by focusing on the big things you can’t control—war, natural disasters, hatred—as opposed to the little things you can. Those little things include bringing a small blessing or source of relief to others. For example, if your commute to work is a soul-sucking existential nightmare, don’t ruminate on the cars stopped ahead of you. Rather, focus on making space for that poor sap stuck in the wrong lane who’s desperately trying to merge. If you’re sitting at your desk wondering whether anyone would notice if you stopped doing your job, bring the colleague in the next cubicle a fresh cup of coffee, and enjoy the small delight that small kindness brings both of you.
3. Be fully present.
Absurdity tends to sting only when we see it from the “outside”; for example, when you think about how meaningless it has been to wash the dishes every day in the past only to find them dirty again right now—and imagine the countless dish washings that the rest of your life will comprise. Confronting the absurd is much more comfortable when you do so with mindfulness. This is the point that the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh made when he wrote, “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.” When the broad sweep of life brings you horror, concentrate on this moment, and savor it. The pleasure and meaning you can find right now are real; the meaninglessness of the future is not.
You may not agree with Camus’ core assumptions about the world. I, for one, believe that life is not meaningless, and that there is a cosmic purpose to my work and yours, that love and life will transcend this mortal coil. I believe that we have a divine nature that endows my existence and yours with transcendental meaning.
But on my bad days, well … I doubt all that. Some mornings, I wake up seeing only boulders and can’t face pushing them once again up that hill. I suppose I could stay in bed, contemplating one of Kierkegaard’s more depressing existentialist axioms: “With every increase in the degree of consciousness, and in proportion to that increase, the intensity of despair increases: the more consciousness the more intense the despair.” But staying in bed thinking about that seems even more Sisyphean.
Those are the days when my old friend Camus comes in handy. Instead of despairing of the absurdity of life, I lean into it, laugh at it, and start my day in a light mood. Then I gather my beloved boulders and set out for the nearest hill.