French philosopher and playwright Jean Paul Sartre’s 1944 play, “No Exit,” envisioned a hell devoid of searing flames, torture devices or red-eyed devils pitchforking inhabitants for eternity. But that doesn’t mean the punishment for unredeemed sinners wasn’t awful beyond imagining.
Sartre instead placed multiple people in a locked room—in this case, two women and one man—carefully selected to provoke maximum and mutual psychological discomfort upon one another by picking astutely at the scabs of the moral failings that landed each of them in this dreaded situation, yes, for all eternity.
“Anything but that!”, we can hear ourselves saying in sympathy with these otherwise despicable characters. (Military desertion, vicious marital infidelity, seduction, sadism, infanticide…)
The prospect of spending eternity locked in a room with others capable and committed to driving you crazy without relief led to this famous passage near play’s end from the male protagonist:
“What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers.
HELL IS—OTHER PEOPLE!”
That last sentence in all caps stands as an oft-quoted signature line from the play, representing the push-pull of human relationship and all the power dynamics that require delicate negotiation if one party is to avoid being crushed or at least severely disadvantaged by the other. Sartre later went on to clarify that he didn’t mean all human relationships are doomed—only that people fashion their own hells by being…
“…too dependent on the judgment of other people. But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.”
That “capital importance of all other people” brings Sartre and us squarely into the orbit of a recently published (January, 2023) book that will occupy most of the remaining discussion in this post.
A couple of months ago, I gathered for the better part of a week at an Air B&B with four buddies of mine dating back to junior high school. All of us have stayed in touch to varying degrees over the last 60 years, reconnecting in earnest at a pre-pandemic high school reunion and trying to meet annually since.
Probably just as important, we continue to engage in almost daily text and email streams about sports, politics, the arts, more sports, and a seemingly endless catalog of high school and college hijinks (some of which we’d prefer never to fall into the public domain).
I should note that just prior, I’d met up for several days with another, college-based pals group of four, pictured below. (The fact these gatherings occurred back-to-back represented a miracle of timing, the likes of which I don’t anticipate experiencing again in this lifetime.)
If I read authors Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, PhD, correctly in their 2023 book, “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness,” my groups’ ongoing contact and the care that goes into their maintenance both suggest and enhance a welcome level of happiness in our individual lives.
And those friendships are ideally part of a vast relational web, a consistent pattern of engagement with other friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues of both long and recent standing, from intimate to casual. (Your kindly, regular exchange of pleasantries with your mail carrier and handyman also qualify—spread that joy!)
En toto, these relationships represent the golden wand most responsible for human happiness, the authors strongly maintain.
Money, career, killer looks and a vacation home in the Hamptons? Distant seconds, all.
On virtually every measure not only of emotional satisfaction and happiness but also physical health and longevity, “Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.”
Though these insights are not exactly world-shattering to anyone paying close attention to their own lives, there’s a difference between an almost rote recitation of, “Yeah, I know, I know, money can’t buy happiness and workaholism is a killer,” and the actual application of that and similar knowledge to one’s life.
Witness the seeming epidemic reports of loneliness as a mental health problem—not only in the U.S., where one of four adults reports feeling regularly lonely, but around the world.
China has acknowledged widespread loneliness among older adults in particular—one study suggesting one-third of that population is affected. Great Britain appointed a “Minister of Loneliness” in 2018 to address the issue on a national scale, given reports there of 9 million people feeling “often or always lonely” and 200,000 seniors reporting the lack of even a single conversation with a friend or family member in the previous month or more.
“Spoiler alert,” the authors tell us on page 3. “The good life is a complicated life. For everybody.”
One of the complicating factors is the other people whom Sartre claimed were hell personified but that Waldinger and Schulz insist—with abundant data rather than philosophical speculation on their side—are the key to happiness.
But the other people we need for relationships sometimes move far away, or find a soul mate and grow scarce on us, or even worse, they die. Others become parents and fall right off the face of the earth for an indeterminate period.
This is where the therapists leave little doubt they agree with the philosopher that relational happiness doesn’t just fall into anyone’s lap unbidden.
“A good life—a rich life—is forged from precisely the things that make it hard,” they write. “Life, even when it’s good, is not easy.”
Fortunately, the second half of the book explores the basic psychological dynamics at play in successful relationship-building, sketches out problem-solving strategies, and includes abundant encouragement that no matter where one lies on the age spectrum or introversion-extroversion scale, it’s literally “never too late to be happy.”
They also emphasize that happiness is not so much an achievement as it is an orientation—an embrace and contentment in the journey rather than a pining for arrival.
Not everyone comes into that orientation. Waldinger and Schulz detail lives of some who never manage to align themselves, who fall to unresolved childhood trauma, feelings of unworthiness, or wariness of intimacy that prevents them from ever attaining the meaningful friendships and joie de vivre so central to life satisfaction.
And indeed, one advantage of a study such as the one chronicled in “The Good Life” is that it holds a mirror up to participants on a regular basis in their lives, leaving them little choice but to keep living the “examined life” that Socrates cited even before Aristotle as the only one worth living.
Which means those of us outside the study just have a little work to tend to.
But who better to tend to it with than the very friends and loved ones who are the keys to the happiness we seek?
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A pdf version of the full play “No Exit” can be found here. (About a 60-minute or so read.)
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Devils near top of page by Thomas Hawk, San Francisco, California https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/
Boy buddies by Aman Shrivastava, India https://unsplash.com/@amansks91
Adult buddies by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/