"It is up to the individual to choose the life they think best."
Sartre was an existentialist philosopher, as were Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Existentialism is a philosophical movement based on the belief that for conscious beings existence precedes essence. His most important work was Being And Nothingness (L'Être et le Néant). Sartre believed that the human being is 'terrifying free'. We are responsible for the choices we make, and we are responsible for our emotional lives.
"Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does."1
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre formulated the basics of his philosophical belief, in which "existence is prior to essence." He draws a fundamental distinction between different forms of existence; the difference between conscious and non-conscious being. Sartre considered 'conscious being' to be beings that exist for themselves, or 'being for-itself' (pour-soi), whilst 'non-conscious beings' exist in themselves, or 'being in-itself' (en-soi). Being for-itself is a term used for any being capable of self-consciousness, whilst 'being in-itself' is used for inanimate objects, and anything which lacks self-consciousness.
In Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (Esquisse d'une Théorie des Émotions), Sartre replaces the traditional view of our emotional state, that we passively accept our emotional behaviour, with one whereby we are active participants in our emotional experiences. Emotion is initiated by a degradation of consciousness caused by us having to face situations that we are unable to deal with. He said:
"We can now conceive what an emotion is. It is a transformation of the world. When the paths before us become too difficult, or when we cannot see our way, we can no longer put up with such an exacting and difficult world. All ways are barred and nevertheless we must act. So we try to change the world; that is, to live it as though the relations between things and their potentialities were not governed by deterministic processes but by magic."2
Sartre believed that human beings are characterised by their ability to choose what they become, but he also recognised how we often lie to ourselves by using our emotional state to 'change the world' as we perceive it.
Lying to ourselves
This helps to explain why codependents lie; having put themselves into a position whereby they feel the need to defend the behaviour of their narcissistic husband or boss, for example, and having taken on the psychological defences and survival behaviours of their narcissist, the codependent has to deal with the effects of the narcissist's behaviour. The stress, the pressure, the anxiety, the emotional turmoil, the desperate attempts to protect the narcissist from the consequences of his or her behaviour all becomes too much for the codependent to deal with. 'All ways are barred' and nevertheless the codependent must act.
The right course of action, that is addressing the root cause of all the problems and turning against the narcissist, is unthinkable to a codependent completely under a narcissist's control. The only option, therefore, is try to change the world by magic. It ultimately results in codependent behaviour characterised by behaviours such as lying, deceit, duplicity and denial.
Sartre's view of happiness was not clear. He described happiness as a 'myth', but he also appeared to acknowledge its existence when he divided it into three categories: having, doing and being. His concepts of having and doing relate to materialism and experientialism, and being relates existence.
He recognised the moral dichotomy between the acquisition of material and the acquisition of experiences, placing 'the doing' of experiences on a higher moral and spiritual plane than 'the having'; materialism being linked to narcissism, social anxiety and general dissatisfaction with life. A study conducted in 2009 at San Francisco State University found that experientialism brought a higher degree of happiness. When compared with each other, experiences made people much happier than objects. The study showed that experiences not only give us greater happiness, they also provide lasting happiness.3
For more information about the great philosophers and their views on narcissism and happiness, read Finding Happiness.
1 Statement by Sartre both in 'Being and Nothingness' (BN) and his famous talk, 'Existentialism is a Humanism'
2 Sartre, Jean-Paul (1971), Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions (Translation by Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1962), University Press, Cambridge, p. 63.
3 Weinberger, Michelle F. and Wallendorf, Melanie (2008), Having vs. Doing: Materialism, Experientialism, and the Experience of Materiality, Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 35, pp. 257-261.