Can We Be Happy?

The autumn equinox marks the point where – here in the northern hemisphere – having been held briefly in balance, the days begin to shorten and the nights extend as we commence the journey into winter. It’s a time where the cycle of the seasons seems to draw attention to itself, imparting its sad, unceasing lesson: “Nothing lasts,” it says. “Everything passes. The only constant thing is change.” Of course, spring and summer are no less a part of this cycle, but there is something about autumn that seems to underline this lesson more fully – perhaps because we are always more mindful of something that we’re about to lose. But in that less than cheery thought there is also hope, for just as summer changes to autumn, so winter will in time give way to spring, and warmth and light and life will return.

But if this circularity can provide comfort, it can also be a source of torment. Think of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods eternally to push the same boulder up the same hill, only each day to see it roll back down from the summit. Or Prometheus, again the recipient of divine punishment, chained to a rock as his liver is eaten out by eagles, only for it to regrow every night, and the process to begin again.

It is this perspective on circularity that underlies one of Nietzsche’s most famous doctrines, the notion of the Eternal Return. Imagine, he says, that you are visited one night by an all-powerful demon, who promises you eternal life. But, there’s a catch (maybe “demon” gives this away…): you would have to live your life over and over again, exact in every detail, until the end of time (if, you know, it ever does end…). Would you agree to the deal?

Well, who wouldn’t want more of life? Unless, of course, it is the life of a Sisyphus or a Prometheus. And of course, such a repetitious existence in itself would eventually become a torment, wouldn’t it, no matter what joys it is filled with? Wouldn’t boredom set in? The lack of freedom and novelty become stifling? Wouldn’t you simply go crazy? It may therefore surprise you (if you don’t know the thought experiment) that Nietzsche advises that we accept the offer. He would agree with the later words of French philosopher Albert Camus (whom he was no doubt an influence upon), who said that, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” But “happy” in what sense?

It’s interesting to note how popular this idea of eternal recurrence has become in popular culture. Off the top of my head, there is of course the Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day, Netflix’s beautifully macabre Russian doll (which I’m delighted to note has a second season coming), and a slew of sci-fi-ish titles, such as Boss Level, Source Code, and Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt’s Edge of Tomorrow (which also apparently has a sequel coming out – in itself a bit “meta”, and perhaps its own form of torture…). In literature, Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August provides an interesting twist on this, where a man is born into the same life, again and again, but each time retains his memories of the lives before. You can no doubt think of other examples, but they all seem to have one thing in common: events are not fixed. And so, Bill Murray eventually transforms himself from conceited arsehole into piano-playing, charity-giving, lover of French poetry, and thereby wins the heart of Andie MacDowell. The other titles mentioned also assume that there is a correct sequence of events that will lead to an optimum outcome, if only the protagonist(s) can learn and apply that knowledge. Generally, such stories see happiness as a problem of logistics – or as Aristotle would put it, “practical wisdom”. We have a concept of what would make us happy, we just need to learn how to employ it in the right way. It is like a “choose your own path” adventure book, where happiness consists in simply working out the right path through the maze (by the way, if you’re interested in such books, then I can recommend Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be, which is a beautifully illustrated, irreverent and humorous application of the format to Shakespeare’s Hamlet).

In contrast, however, Nietzsche (and Camus) proposed that such striving after a desired outcome is only another form of delusion. If only I can play the piano, learn to ice-sculpt, get the girl, save the human race from alien invasion, then I’ll be happy. Instead, Nietzsche argues, we should be “happy” with whatever life throws at us. For there is a winter for every summer, a fly for every soup, or as Keats put it (more poetically than I can), “in the very temple of Delight/Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine”.

Of course, what Nietzsche proposed is not “happiness” as most of us would think of it. It is, in a way, a denial of those traditional notions of progress, improvement and self-betterment of which happiness is often thought to exist. In its place, Nietzsche asks that we develop the sort of strength of character and mind that can celebrate all of life – its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows. And this is how we should understand “strength” in one of his most famous t-shirt slogans: “what does not kill me, makes me stronger”.

Nietzsche wanted to find an antidote to his greatest influence, the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that human instinct and reason are incompatible, that “happiness” is therefore impossible, and the best we can hope for is a sort of Buddhistic form of detachment from the torment of our own irrational desires. Nietzsche agreed with Schopenhauer’s nihilism – there is no God, and no divine morality or innate sense of goodness that we can follow to make us happy – but rejected his pessimism. In accepting and celebrating the rich tapestry of life in all its aspects, he argued, we translate this pessimism not into delusory optimism (the hope or belief that everything will work out for the best), but a positive attitude to life whatever happens.

Do I agree? Partly. To adopt such an attitude is a tough ask. I also think I’m less nihilistic than Nietzsche and Schopenhauer: perhaps the world is not so alien and inhospitable as we might think, and human nature not so irrational and self-serving. But whatever the case, there seems wisdom in accepting that change and disappointment are an essential part of life, and that if we can come to anticipate, or even celebrate these “negative” sides, and not reach out in false hope or chase empty, delusory pleasures, then we have a greater chance of being “happy” in a fuller, deeper sense – whatever that word turns out to mean. To reference Keats again, spring and summer are lovely and all that, but autumn has its music too, albeit a slightly sadder song.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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Image credit:The Road from Chailly to Fontainebleau (1864), Claude Monet