Bad Faith: The Pyramid Scheme of Unhappiness

'I hate my job!' my friend exclaimed. 'Sometimes I think I'd rather be dead than live this boring, monotonous cycle every day.' 

'Why don't you just quit?' He looked at me with absurdity.

'I can't quit... I have responsibilities, bills and stuff. I've worked so hard to get here, it would be such a waste.' 


My friend is living the definition of what the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre termed 'Mauvaise Foi' or 'Bad Faith'

In gambling, you often reach a point where you've lost so much that you keep playing with money you never wanted to spend in a desperate hope to regain some of your losses. Giving up forces you to accept that you wasted the night and lost everything you invested: Time, money, and pride. Better to keep playing and hope it pays out.

Too many people spend their lives committed to the idea that time and energy invested means that you must keep playing a game you're losing. This is further compounded through advice from others mired in the same predicament. Living becomes a pyramid scheme where you enroll others into your unhappy lifestyle in an effort to convince yourself that you've made the right decisions. (IE: new auto loans, 30-year mortgages, credit card debts, expensive luxury items. Even marriage and children when you're not mentally or financially ready.)

I am not suggesting that buying houses, being domestic or wanting a simpler life is inherently bad. It's not. All lifestyles have trade-offs, issues and bullshit. However, so many people are roped into lifestyles that don't fit who they are because they've been convinced that it would carry them down the road to a universal happiness. There's a viral belief that you can 'have it all'. Everyone is reluctant to commit to anything because they believe another lifestyle might lead them to more satisfaction.

Ultimately this leads many to believe that it was somehow fate, god or bad luck that guided them down this inevitable path, absolving them of personal responsibility. This is the final component in the stages of lifestyle grief: acceptance. In behavioral neuroscience, we call this 'learned helplessness'. An animal has finally come to terms that its situation is beyond its control and so accepts whatever 'fate' has in store.

 This handsome guy.

This handsome guy.

Sartre spent a career trying to dispel this myth and urge us to not live in this Bad Faith.

He believed that as critical minded humans, we are literally 'cursed with freedom'. Everyday you wake up, you have millions of options available to you. You could quit your job and pursue your passion. You could sell everything you own and move to New Zealand. You could end your unhappy marriage and start over. 

But I have kids. I have a house. I have bills. I have a career. I have a family. I have school. I have debt. i have a marriage. i'm afraid to travel. i'm comfortable.

We all have these things, but they aren't preventing you from changes, they just make it more difficult. Every lifestyle requires concessions.

My absolute favorite definition of happiness comes from this WaitbutWhy article. It describes a simple formula for happiness as Expectations - Reality. If your expectations exceed your reality, you have a negative net happiness. Everything is disappointing. 

By believing your life can be so many unlikely things and go in so many unlikely directions, you are constantly disappointed when they never accumulate. You cannot 'have it all.' By accepting your life and what it has become, being honest about your susceptibility to Bad Faith, and working to develop a lifestyle that makes more sense, you can find much more satisfaction in the things you do.

Of course, you don't HAVE to make changes. You are welcome to live whatever life you want. Sartre simply wanted you to understand the you have many more freedoms than most people like to accept.

Have some experiences with bad faith? Tell us in the comments or on social media!