Sisyphus and Happiness

As I was waking up this morning, in that state of not-quite-awakeness, the name Sisyphus bubbled up. Somehow the idea of dragging myself out of bed to do almost exactly the same thing I had done the day before, felt like a Sisyphean task. Noticing the beginnings of a meaning crisis (an existential depression), I forced the thought away and got up. As I woke up more fully, Sisyphus returned. This time I became intrigued: There certainly is something to our days that is very much like the myth of Sisyphus. Just like Sisyphus rolls a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down and start all over again, we do the same things day in day out. That’s called routine. And while there can be something rather comforting about it, routines contain the kernels of a meaning crisis since they have removed us from the effort of making meaning. Then I remembered something else: According to Camus’ telling of the story, Sisyphus was happy. According to Eric Maisel’s take on the story, this mythical character is happy because he “reckoned with the facts of existence” (The Van Gogh Blues, p. 99). He accepted reality, even though that reality involved that he’d be doing the same seemingly meaningless task over and over and over again. In Maisel’s words, Sisyphus forced meaning onto his existence and thus created happiness (or at least, avoided a meaning crisis). Sisyphus could roll the boulder up the hill while complaining that the boulder is too heavy, that he shouldn’t have to do this, that this is ridiculous work, that it is utterly meaningless – fighting reality. This would create unhappiness because it steals meaning from life. I know because I’ve done that way too frequently at my job. But we can do the same as Sisyphus has obviously done: defiantly deciding to be happy no matter what reality brings.

There is another message in the myth of Sisyphus, though: It takes effort. Not only is rolling a boulder up a hill difficult but maintaining a sense of contentment, let alone happiness, takes work as well. Back to my morning: I had to mentally kick myself out of bed. I had to exert an effort to refuse to be drawn down into a meaning crisis by the idea of my Sisyphean day. It took me a while. It took a lot of mental effort, a conscious choice to make meaning, to refuse to be drawn in by my negative self-talk. One thing that I find helpful in cases like this is to connect with others, including strangers, sometimes willfully faking a cheerful attitude until it takes over. As I was walking to the bus stop, still teetering close to the edge of a meaning crisis, I saw the father and son walking down the street I see on many mornings. I don’t know their names. I suspect that the father drops his toddler son off at day care. This morning, I forced myself to smile at them, to say good morning. Making an effort to smile at the first stranger I passed seemed like pushing a boulder up a mountain. The smile was answered, my effort rewarded, making the boulder just a little bit lighter to roll up the hill. Human connections are very important to me, even the small gestures toward strangers seem to help bring more joy into my life. Deep connections with friends are longer lasting and build a stronger foundation. Yet, even the small gestures help and are essential when friends are busy with other things. We cannot rely on one basket to fill our life with happiness.

Jennifer Michael Hecht writes in her book The Happiness Myth: “Happiness maintenance work is creating things to look forward to on a daily basis; arranging some peak experience for yourself occasionally; and making sure the overall story of your life has some feelings of progress and growth” (135-6). I realized this morning that the things to create daily need to be outside of our routine. The routine numbs our minds and hearts, it closes us to the opportunities to make meaning, to find happiness. We need to do something out of that routine to feel alive, the foundation of happiness. To me that out of the ordinary was a simple “good morning” to someone I had never acknowledge before. A stranger, yet not a stranger, since I see the father-son pair almost every morning. Noticing that I was wearing the same sweater that I wore yesterday because I had forgotten that I worn it just the day before, thus breaking the thou-shalt-not-wear-the-same-thing rule, helped, too. It created another opportunity to go beyond the routine and laugh at myself. Not taking life so serious is another way to get out of my routine. Slowly, the danger of a meaning crisis seems to be fading, though I am still making an effort to notice the small things that can add to my joy, just to make sure I don’t slip and fall into the hole of a crisis.






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