In his book “The Conquest of Happiness”, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) presents a theory of happiness that is broadly Aristotelian. Russell thinks that what makes us happy is an active life, directed by a deep and sustained interest in the world. What makes us unhappy is the undue fixation on our own person and our everyday problems.
In the previous two posts (one
), we talked about Bertrand Russell
and his theory of what makes us unhappy: competition, anxiety, envy and the fear of the opinion of others are just a few common factors that contribute to an unhappy life.
Today, we want to see what Russell thinks about how to become happy. Let’s dive in!
Zest and happiness
According to Russell, one of the main ingredients of a happy life is what he calls a “friendly interest in things”:
“The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”
This way of approaching the world will lead to a life of “zest,” as he calls it: it will enable us to approach situations with genuine interest, and thus will make us able to derive pleasure from engaging with the world:
“We are all prone to the malady of the introvert, who, with the manifold spectacle of the world spread out before him, turns away and gazes only upon the emptiness within. But let us not imagine that there is anything grand about the introvert’s unhappiness.”
Children have this spontaneous interest in everything: “The world is full of surprises to them, and they are perpetually engaged with ardour in the pursuit of knowledge, not, of course, of scholastic knowledge, but of the sort that consists in acquiring familiarity with the objects that attract their attention.”
Grown-up humans, in contrast, often lose their interest in the world when they grow up. One reason is that one gets used to the world. The things that surround us lose their novelty and their ability to surprise us, like they did when we were children. But, as Russell emphasises, this is often an illusion. To the open, inquiring mind, the world is still full of mysteries and surprises. Those who think that they have already seen it all are probably wrong. Who of us can really explain why the sky is blue, for instance? Such a common thing – and we are likely unable to say how that works. And the same is true when someone would ask us about how plants function, what photosynthesis does, what the real causes of global warming are, or which country in Africa has the most interesting landscapes that one could visit. It is unbelievably easy to step onto the outer limits, the border fences of our everyday knowledge of the world – for almost all of us and for almost any subject, except perhaps the one or two in which we are proficient and with which we earn our living.
So how did we get here? Why do we lose that original zest, that interest in the world that is so typical of children?
“Genuine zest,” Russell writes “is part of the natural make-up of human beings except in so far as it has been destroyed by unfortunate circumstances. (…) Loss of zest in civilised society is very largely due to the restrictions upon liberty which are essential to our way of life. (…) At every moment of life the civilised man is hedged about by restrictions of impulse: if he happens to feel cheerful he must not sing or dance in the street, while if he happens to feel sad he must not sit on the pavement and weep, for fear of obstructing pedestrian traffic. In youth his liberty is restricted at school, in adult life it is restricted throughout his working hours. All this makes zest more difficult to retain, for the continual restraint tends to produce weariness and boredom.”
In capitalism, the consumer must be trained to have a very particular taste in things that is largely identical to the tastes and preferences of everyone else.
This is very similar to what Erich Fromm diagnoses as the problem of modern Western societies
. In capitalism, the consumer must be trained to have a very particular taste in things that is largely identical to the tastes and preferences of everyone else: The mass production of goods would not be possible in a society where taste is truly individual:
Mass production needs mass taste, and mass taste needs humans who are raised to be more or less identical copies of each other.
Work and happiness
We jump over Russell’s chapters on affection and family life, because these seem quite dated by today’s standards. The book was written in 1930, and Russell sometimes shows that he is a child of the first half of the 20th century in his views regarding the role of women and the ideal structure of families. This doesn’t make his other ideas wrong, though. We must just be a little bit selective about which of his thoughts we can today embrace and use, and which are best left behind and forgotten between the pages of an old book.
Idleness is for Russell another factor that contributes to human unhappiness. As animals are never idle or lazy, healthy human beings also should not be. By the way, this too is a thought that Russell shares with Fromm. Fromm will later expand this idea to distinguish between “productive activity” and mere “busy-ness”. Russell writes:
“(…) Provided work is not excessive in amount, even the dullest work is to most people less painful than idleness. (…) **Work, therefore, is desirable, first and foremost, as a preventive of boredom, for the boredom that a man feels when he is doing necessary though uninteresting work is as nothing in comparison with the boredom that he feels when he has nothing to do with his days.”
This is an interesting thought in the present-day debate about the unemployment due to AI taking away our jobs and the discussion around a universal basic income. A universal basic income surely will be a welcome solution to the economic problems from unemployment. But is that all that counts? Or does work, as Russell thinks, have more to give us than money? How does work contribute to our happiness? Russell identifies two different ways how work enriches our lives:
- Work requires the exercise of our skills, and a skill well exercised is a source of pride and happiness for the person exercising that skill.
- The best kind of work is constructive, in the sense that it builds or constructs something that wasn’t there before: a scientific paper, a movie, a poem, a picture, a good dish, or perhaps even the plan for a good holiday. The point is that “something is built up, which remains as a monument when the work is completed.”
Living a constructive life in the end also leads a person to see their own life as something constructed with a purpose, as a work of art, in a way, that is rounded and meaningful rather than random and meaningless. And the most consistent source of meaning in a person’s life is the work that they do:
“Human beings differ profoundly in regard to the tendency to regard their lives as a whole: To some men it is natural to do so, and essential to happiness to be able to do so with some satisfaction. To others life is a series of detached incidents without directed movement and without unity. I think the former sort are more likely to achieve happiness than the latter, since they will gradually build up those circumstances from which they can derive contentment and self-respect, whereas the others will be blown about by the winds of circumstance now this way, now that, without ever arriving at any haven. The habit of viewing life as a whole is an essential part both of wisdom and of true morality, and is one of the things which ought to be encouraged in education.”
Impersonal interests: the key to happiness?
Here the circle closes and we’re back at the topic of “zest” and interest in the world. Having interests in the outside world (rather than being interested only in one’s own achievements and thoughts) is for Russell one of the most important ingredients in a happy life:
“One of the sources of unhappiness, fatigue, and nervous strain is inability to be interested in anything that is not of practical importance in one’s own life. The result of this is that the conscious mind gets no rest from a certain small number of matters, each of which probably involves some anxiety and some element of worry. (…) What is restful about external interests is the fact that they do not call for any action.”
So, while reading Russell for a philosopher might be “work,” accompanied by feelings of anxiety and stress (will I get this blog post out in time?), reading the same book for someone who is, say, a taxi driver, will likely be great fun and a source of relaxation and interest. The more we engage with things that we are not forced to engage with, the more opportunities we have for play, for activity that is captivating and entertaining without being tiring and draining. But there are also other benefits from having impersonal, outward-directed interests:
“To begin with, [such interests] help a man to retain his sense of proportion. It is very easy to become so absorbed in our own pursuits, our own circle, our own type of work, that we forget how small a part this is of the total of human activity and how many things in the world are entirely unaffected by what we do.”
Such a sense of proportion can free us from much of the anxiety that relates to our work. After all, in the great scheme of things, one person’s work seldom is of vital importance. If one person doesn’t achieve a particular goal, someone else will. Realising this can free us perhaps of some stress and make us see that our worries are less justified and less important than we usually think.
Varied interests provide an escape from the difficulties of life.
But there is also another good reason to cultivate external interests:
“Even in the most fortunate lives there are times when things go wrong. Few men except bachelors have never quarrelled with their wives; few parents have not endured grave anxiety owing to the illnesses of their children; few businessmen have avoided times of financial stress; few professional men have not known periods when failure stared them in the face. At such times a capacity to become interested in something outside the cause of anxiety is an immense boon.”
Varied interests provide an escape from the difficulties of life. Instead of focusing only on what goes wrong in our lives, such interests allow us to get away for a while from the things that bother us and find peace and satisfaction in another activity.
The wise and happy person, thinks Russell, should always be oriented outwards, away from their own little world.
And, finally, these external interests are a part of a bigger orientation of a person towards the world. The wise and happy person, thinks Russell, should always be oriented outwards, away from their own little world. He thinks that a happy man
“… feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”
If you’d like to read Bertrand Russell’s book by yourself (it has lots more insights than I could fit into this article!) then you can buy it through the link below. If you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!
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