Is it right to be happy in a world that’s broken? That’s the question Simone de Beauvoir went to Albert Camus with. Beauvoir was worrying that being focussed on one’s own happiness meant one had to detach themselves from the political reality around them. But as long as our happiness isn’t born out of ignorance or apathy, as long as it’s authentic, even existentialists are allowed to be happy. In fact, they should be. Happiness can be a form of resistance against the injustice and absurdity of life, writes Skye Cleary.
As doom scrolling on social media becomes an addictive daily ritual, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed with feelings of unhappiness and helplessness. Given the relentless onslaught of pandemics, incessant political buffoonery, climate change, discrimination, exploitation, and generalized torment, in the wise words of Audre Lorde, “what depraved monster could possibly be always happy?”
One defensive mechanism is apathy. There is so much suffering and horrors in the world pushed into our faces every day, that we are lured into developing what existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir calls a kind of “tetanus of the imagination.” Beauvoir fell into psychological paralysis when she read newspapers reporting on the Algerian War in 1961. For Beauvoir, the collective experience of getting used to atrocities every day is “the final stage of demoralization for a nation.”
Camus was disappointed that people felt ashamed of feeling happy and advised Beauvoir, “Happiness exists, and it’s important; why refuse it? You don’t make other people’s unhappiness any worse by accepting it; it even helps you fight for them.”
Amidst the awfulness of the world, is it morally wrong to use apathy to eke out small moments of happiness? Is it wrong to celebrate a best friend’s birthday or enjoy a beautiful moonrise while knowing about ever new variants of fascism and COVID-19? In the late 1940s, in the aftermath of World War II, Beauvoir was chatting with her then-friend Albert Camus about happiness. Beauvoir realized that her fixation with happiness had made her oblivious to political realities. Camus saw a way forward. He was disappointed that people felt ashamed of feeling happy and advised Beauvoir, “Happiness exists, and it’s important; why refuse it? You don’t make other people’s unhappiness any worse by accepting it; it even helps you fight for them.”
SUGGESTED READING Simone de Beauvoir and the Ethics of Seduction By Sarah LaChance Adams If we care about our happiness, we must fight against beasts such as apathy. Sabotaging our own happiness helps no one. And passivity corrupts our lives and deadens our experiences. Wilful ignorance is comforting, but it gives us a false view of our situations. To disregard the real context of our existence is to be what Beauvoir called bad faith, a kind of self-deception that subverts freedom. It’s bad faith to escape our reality and do nothing in the face of injustices. To avoid bad faith and to foster opportunities for authentic happiness, we must project ourselves positively and constructively into life.
To be human is to be constantly in tension between attempting to control the world around us and to avoid being crushed by it.
Constructing authentic happiness means hustling for the right to make our own choices about our lives, while at the same time nurturing respectful relationships with other people and the world. Like stones supporting each other in an arch, humanity is healthy when individuals flourish together. Lorde observed that, “The only really happy people I have ever met are those of us who work against these deaths with all the energy of our living, recognizing the deep and fundamental unhappiness with which we are surrounded, at the same time as we fight to keep from being submerged by it.” To be human is to be constantly in tension between attempting to control the world around us and to avoid being crushed by it. None of us are gods. We can’t completely master our world, but as long as we can keep buoyant, there are possibilities for moments of authentic happiness in between the spaces of sinking and floating.
In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir writes, to will freedom “is to will the disclosure of being in the joy of existence; in order for the idea of liberation to have a concrete meaning, the joy of existence must be asserted in each one, at every instant; the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness.” Authentic happiness is a kind of flourishing that comes from engaging in the world. Everything we do only has meaning if we can find joy in existence, if we can create moments of living happiness in drinking a glass of wine or hugging a friend or hearing a child laughing.
In 1946, Beauvoir wrote an essay called “Jean-Paul Sartre” about a philosopher named Jean-Paul Sartre, who was also her life partner. Sartre was an example of a person whom Beauvoir saw as authentically happy (at least at the time of writing). Sartre was happy because he was fully awake to life. He constantly engaged in the world, forever tore himself away from his past, and transcended beyond the facts of his life. His happiness came from the harmony he experienced in being able to affirm himself as pure freedom.
Beauvoir’s concern was that assumptions about other people’s ability to make themselves happy can be used as a tool of oppression.
According to Beauvoir, Sartre was “happy without qualms because he is convinced that any man can, more or less readily, discover a joy as solid as his own at the heart of himself and in the consciousness of his freedom.” But Sartre was in good health. He was a white well-educated man with the social power to exercise his freedom mostly in ways that he chose. Although Beauvoir writes that Sartre “feels more than anyone all that is horrible and troubling in this world,” Beauvoir later notes in The Second Sex that such an attitude of assuming that everyone can find happiness as easily as Sartre did is to overlook the facts of other people’s existence (although she doesn’t mention Sartre explicitly).
Beauvoir’s concern was that assumptions about other people’s ability to make themselves happy can be used as a tool of oppression. Beauvoir writes, “It is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place [others].” The problem is that describing a situation as happy implies that there’s nothing wrong. Saying that people should be able to find happiness in oppressive situations—just by trying harder, for example—is a defence of the status quo, justifying unfair situations, quashing and disarming attempts to change or act.
For example, the trope that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps will make you successful and therefore happy overlooks systemic discrimination and power structures that thwarts many people’s success. The mystification of the eternal feminine that purports women’s greatest destiny, and thus happiness, is to become a wife and mother lurks behind excuses for taking away women’s rights over their own bodies and encourages them to submit to being for others at the expense of being for themselves. Oppressed people often put on happy faces not because they’re authentically happy, but because it is what’s expected of them. Performative happiness becomes yet another obligation and, perversely, a new source of unhappiness.
Authentic happiness can be a source of strength when we acknowledge our privilege, remain lucid about our situations, and continue to fight against injustices. Happiness conceived in this existential way doesn’t mean quietism or passivity. Happiness is a side-effect of fully engaging in life, exercising our freedom, and taking responsibility for shaping the world we live in. Authentic happiness is intimately tied to the freedom of others: when we become conscious of our freedom, create joy in disclosing freedom, and see others doing the same. It’s not wrong to snatch moments happiness where we can, but happiness is best when we face our situations lucidly and know that others are able to do the same. Beauvoir sums up the ideal: “Happy is he who can look the truth of his life full in the face and rejoice in it; happy is he who can read it on friendly faces.”