In Greek mythology, Zeno punished Sisyphus by forcing him to push a burdensome boulder up a hill. Whenever he reaches the top, the rock rolls back down for Sisyphus to retrieve and strenuously push back up. This was condemned to repeat for eternity. When asked to imagine themselves in Sisyphus' shoes, a couple of my friends chose to commit suicide rather than perform such a labourious yet pointless task to no end. When faced with a life of harsh suffering, many do not see the value of staying alive. On the other hand, French philosopher Albert Camus believed that Sisyphus represents the ultimate embodiment of a good life. In choosing to devote all of himself to lifting his rock, he embraces his destiny head-on, becoming stronger than the Gods that condemned him to his fate. "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart," he writes, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy" (Camus 112). Although most of us do not need to push a rock ceaselessly up the same slope, we all face work that we don't want to do. Instead of avoiding painful tasks, Sisyphus' happiness shows that we can derive enormous satisfaction from embracing our arduous work. In this essay, I present my life philosophy that the meaning of my life comes from continuously striving towards a goal and loving the struggle.
To start, the fulfillment from hard work is more meaningful than immediately enjoyable pleasures. In mid-May, I committed that studying French would be my main focus for the next month, in preparation for my C1 level language exam. In the month that followed, I found myself most fulfilled when listening to a French podcast or audiobook. During those times, the knowledge that this current moment was undeniably getting me closer to a goal (understanding spoken French confidently) made my existence feel purposeful.
The morning after the exam, I didn't know what to work on now that I no longer had a north star to anchor my efforts to. So I did what my generation is used to when feeling directionless: numbed the pain with music. Although the Melanie Martinez album was pleasurable, the knowledge that time spent listening to it won't improve my future weighed on the back of my mind, both preventing the current moment from being as enjoyable and making me feel that my current existence serves for nothing. In contrast, when watching French videos on special relativity, I know that my time is serving a greater goal, making my life feel worth living. Finding meaning from striving is distinctly different from finding it in happiness (as stated by hedonist philosophies), because one excites a desire to keep living while the other doesn't.
To put this to a scientific study, psychologists Csikszentmihalyi and Larson sent subjects occasional messages throughout the day asking what they are doing and how they feel. Because they were recording their feelings about the activity they were currently doing, their responses are likely to be accurate. Most people believe that they would be happiest when relaxing, but Csikszentmihalyi and Larson empirically found that people reported themselves happier during work than during free time (Newport 48). It is universal for human beings to derive better fulfillment from making efforts than from pleasurable activities.
Furthermore, it is the work itself that's fulfilling, rather than the achievement of a goal. It is well-accepted in psychology that humans tend to return to a stable "baseline" level of happiness a short time after good or bad events happen. Just a couple of months after their win, lottery winners’ self-reported levels of happiness are no longer higher than a control group who didn’t win the lottery (Raghunathan). This is known as hedonic adaptation. Because this theory applies to all external events, people return similarly to their baseline after achievements. Right now, as an anxious Grade 11 student with university applications approaching, I may think that I will be happy forever if I get accepted into my top school with a full ride. This is what some of my friends in Grade 12 thought last year. But once they got their admissions letters, they found new things to desire, new things to be anxious about. Therefore, achievements are not a sustainable source of long-term meaning.
To love running, it is not enough to love the elation of crossing the finish line. Instead, one must love the burn in their taut leg muscles as they put one foot in front of the other. One must love the process and all the pain that comes with it. This is the next part of my life philosophy: to realize one's potential in working towards the goal, one must learn to love the struggle.
Although I like French, listening to it was still frustrating. Some days, I did not want to drill through the podcasts in accents I could barely understand. The work felt Sisyphean—repetitive, exhausting, and with no end in sight—and I wanted to give up. I discovered that all work is painful in some way, even the work that you're passionate about.
It is precisely in bearing this pain that gives life fulfillment. Nietzsche advised us to “say yes to life,” to live as fully as possible in every moment, to feel the deepest of both the good and bad emotions (“Albert Camus”). Since moods are inherently fluctuating, one does not always want to practice the saxophone, for example, even if the instrument is their passion. Thus, to maintain consistency, one must love the suffering that comes with the process, to love the journey rather than the result. "Passions are created rather than found," one of my mentors told me. To love your work, you must spend time with it, to stick with the French accents both when you love them and when you hate them.
In his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson says that we should not aim to avoid suffering, as that is unachievable. The first noble truth of Buddhism states that all life is dukkha, a Pali word that roughly translates to "suffering" (Rahula 16). Hedonic adaptation demonstrates that we can never be free from suffering, as no attainment of any object of desire will make us happy.
Instead, Manson says to choose your struggles. Choose to suffer for what is worth suffering for, in the pursuit of goals that matter (Manson 31).
I would like to conclude with a quote by writer Paul Kalanithi: "You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving" (Kalanithi 67). Permanent happiness is unattainable, but it is through enduring the continuous strive towards a better life that one makes their suffering fulfilling. In pushing his rock up the hill, Sisyphus makes the choice every day to love his struggle. The meaning of my life is not something I achieve once and then my life is labelled a success, but a choice I make repeatedly whenever I decide to love the painful process of making efforts towards a better life.
“Albert Camus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/.
Camus, Albert. Le Mythe de Sisyphe: Essai Sur L'absurde. 1942.
Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air. Vintage Classics, 2020.
Manson, Mark. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. HarperLuxe, 2019.
Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, 2019.
Raghunathan, Raj. “Would Winning the Lottery Make You Happier?” TED, TED-Ed, 27 Feb. 2017, ed.ted.com/lessons/would-winning-the-lottery-make-you-happier-raj-raghunathan.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. Motilal Banarsidass, 2017.