How to be (un)happy – existentialism in a nutshell

In a previous blog I’ve written about the question of self love, how it can be achieved through a deep connection with another. In recent times I have become increasingly interested in the answers that existential philosophy offers to this question. In the wonderful talk linked below, Dr Meg-John Barker speaks about this and other big life questions that existential thought can help with.

When I say “answers”, I am not necessarily referring to bits of information that serve as all purpose cures to life’s ills. There isn’t one single thing you can do or I can say that will ensure your permanent guaranteed happiness.

Indeed, towards the end of their talk, Dr Barker spells out the ultimate truth that one has to grapple with: there will never come a day when you wake up and everything is suddenly perfect. That perfect dream of happiness doesn’t exist. We all have to learn to live with imperfection, and our own mortality. As long as we keep fighting these ultimate existential truths, we can never achieve even a semblance of happiness.

All of the above may sound obvious, but when one delves into the most common complaints that people bring to therapy, one can’t but notice the widespread and pervasive avoidance of these truths. People want to know why they are unhappy, and they want to know how they can permanently avoid unhappiness. Understandably so – popular music and Hollywood films have for decades convinced us that we can be happy forever, if we just have one thing in our lives, usually the idealised romance, the dream house, two beautiful kids and a dog.

Existentialism recognises the human drive to seek the one fixed thing that will validate us and give us happiness. It recognises this drive as our fatal flaw, because, truthfully, nothing in life and the universe is ever fixed. Trying to find something perfect and permanent, or trying to be something perfect and permanent for another’s happiness, causes us untold pain. Yet we keep doing it, unconsciously most of the time.

In existential philosophy, the human search for fixed and permanent things is seen as a strategy that helps us live with our own mortality. When we don’t have anything fixed to cling onto we are faced with the fact that we will die alone – and that can be unbearable. Far better to find a person who promises to fulfil all our needs and help us forget that we will die one day. In the absence of such a person, better to make do with material things, or beliefs, or mind altering drugs, than to face the ultimate fate we are scared of.

Contemporary existential therapists like Cooper, Van Deurzen, Yalom, and Spinelli address these concerns and bring them directly into work with clients. The quest of existential therapy is, essentially, one of coming to terms with our mortality, and the sense of meaninglessness this gives to life. Hopefully, by facing that mortality and our powerlessness against it, we learn to find meaning in the day to day choices that we have. There might not be a lot time ahead of us, so best learn to make the most of it.

According to Yalom and most other existential thinkers in history, the great antidote to our fear of dying is knowledge of our own freedom. We are still free to make choices about the life we live. Unfortunately people can learn to fear their own choices, preferring to turn to cultural and family values for direction. When our own individual instincts clash with the teachings of the culture around us, this leads to existential anxiety and pain.

So we must embrace our own freedom – we must own and take responsibility for our choices – to live happily. We must accept that this will be very hard at times, and we must accept that every day of our life will not be perfect and dream like. To be happy, we must become comfortable with unhappiness.

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