Bertrand Russell’s book ‘The Conquest of Happiness’ (1930) attempts to analyse the conditions for happiness in our modern world, focusing on the mindsets of the unhappy and the happy person and how they differ. For Russell, the unhappy person is preoccupied far too much with their own life and career, and with how they present themselves to others; while happy people engage with life and with intellectual pursuits that are not related directly to themselves, displaying a quality of character he calls “zest” for life.
“My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilised countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable,” writes Bertrand Russell in his 1930 book ‘The Conquest of Happiness’. It is not a book on philosophical theory. Instead, Russell draws on his own life, his own experiences as an unhappy child and young man, to try and understand what makes us unhappy — and how we could be happier.
Russell begins by clarifying that unhappiness is not some kind of personal fault of the unhappy person — at least not entirely:
I believe this unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends. (‘The Conquest of Happiness’)
Society certainly also plays a part in making people unhappy, especially through endorsing those “mistaken habits” and “mistaken views of the world” that cause people to become miserable. But since it is this “natural zest and appetite” that makes a life happy, each one of us can improve their happiness without needing to wait for a change in society. Each one of us has the power to correct their mistaken assumptions about the world and, through clearly understanding the roots of unhappiness, to finally create a happy life for ourselves.
We have so much improved the material conditions of life in the 19th and 20th centuries, he writes in ‘The Conquest of Happiness’. Then why are we still so unhappy?
“Animals are happy so long as they have health and enough to eat. Human beings, one feels, ought to be, but in the modern world they are not, at least in a great majority of cases,” Russell writes. And: “Watch people at a gay evening. All come determined to be happy, with the kind of grim resolve with which one determines not to make a fuss at the dentist’s.”
We have all been at such desperately and determinedly “happy” occasions. What is common to them, according to Russell, is that the unhappiness is driven by particular psychological causes. He names the “sinner,” the “narcissist” and the “megalomaniac” as typical examples of psychological dispositions that cause people to be unhappy. Twenty years later, Erich Fromm will analyse society in very similar, psychoanalytical terms. We will look more at Fromm’s theory in March and April.
Russell’s book is an eye-opening treatise on happiness, as seen from the perspective of a famous philosopher in the mid-20th century. You can buy the book here. If you buy through this link, we will earn a small commission at no cost to you:
Russell begins his book ‘The Conquest of Happiness’ by first analysing the causes for human unhappiness. He identifies eight different reasons for unhappiness, each with its own causes and associated character type.
This is the unhappiness that is supposed to be the stance of an intellectual who is simply too cool and educated to believe in what he perceives to be the “cheap” comforts of lesser men. Like Lord Byron, after whom Russell named this kind of unhappiness, “the men who hold this view are genuinely unhappy, but they are proud of their unhappiness, which they attribute to the nature of the universe and consider to be the only rational attitude for an enlightened man.” (‘The Conquest of Happiness’).
Russell believes that this kind of pessimistic, intellectual unhappiness is the product of too little engagement with life itself:
I have frequently experienced myself the mood in which I felt that all is vanity; I have emerged from it not by means of any philosophy, but owing to some imperative necessity of action. If your child is ill, you may be unhappy, but you will not feel that all is vanity; you will feel that the restoring of the child to health is a matter to be attended to regardless of the question whether there is ultimate value in human life or not.
For him, the best way to leave the “mood” of unhappiness and depression is to find some way to engage with the world in an active way:
Go out into the world; become a pirate, a king in Borneo, a labourer in Soviet Russia; give yourself an existence in which the satisfaction of elementary physical needs will occupy all your energies.
Does this not remind us of Aristotle?
The feeling of competition, for Russell, is a sure way into an unhappy life. By competition, he doesn’t mean the necessary fight for survival among the very poor. He is focussing, in the whole book, not on those whose existential needs push them into situations of unhappiness, but on those who could, in principle, live better lives because they are sufficiently wealthy to do so, but who, for dubious reasons, stay trapped in a life that makes them unhappy. Russell refuses to take the “struggle for survival” of a businessman seriously:
Ask him how many men he has known in his class of life who have died of hunger. Ask him what happened to his friends after they had been ruined. Everybody knows that a businessman who has been ruined is better off so far as material comforts are concerned than a man who has never been rich enough to have the chance of being ruined. What people mean, therefore, by the struggle for life is really the struggle for success. What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbours. (‘The Conquest of Happiness’)
To be honest, this appears to be a bit too elitist. One can understand how Russell, an aristocrat and wealthy man, would come to hold such a view. But today, especially in times of economic crises that lead to mass unemployment, we are reluctant to see the “struggle for survival” as just an exaggerated, misused figure of speech. Too many of us are indeed threatened by unemployment in their very survival. Competition cannot be reduced to the case of businessmen who might be better off after declaring a profitable bankruptcy. This is one of the points where we must recognise that Russell, although often radically progressive, was radically progressive by the standards his time and class, which is not quite the same as what we might expect today. So we must make some allowances and interpret him charitably from time to time (not very often, it must be said — most of the book is still surprisingly progressive, even by today’s standards).
Boredom and excitement
“We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement,” Russell writes. For him, a boring life is nothing to be afraid of. Instead, boredom, or rather monotony, the absence of excitement, is a necessary condition for a life that is rich in meaning and can lead to truly valuable, intellectual achievement. So important is the skill of being able to sit quietly by oneself and do some serious work that Russell would make this a compulsory part of education:
The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements, such as shows and good things to eat, and they do not realise the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions. … Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony. (‘The Conquest of Happiness’)
We can probably all verify that too many of the people we know are addicted to various ways of wasting time, just so that they don’t experience the monotony of their lives: computer games, TV shows, but also extensive holidays, dangerous and exciting hobbies, and even just getting drunk over the weekend, every weekend, are ways of combating monotony. On the other hand, the truly productive person needs to be able to concentrate, to sit still, to observe and wait. The scientist who waits for an experiment to finish; the poet who waits for inspiration and the right word; the gardener who has to wait for many months to see a seedling develop almost imperceptibly week for week; the painter who has to spend years painting bad pictures but persisting, until they finally have acquired the skill to master their art.
Success, and the happiness that come with it, do not come to the impatient. Especially success in intellectual and artistic pursuits needs a peaceful environment. Thoughts need time and silence to develop, a life that is undisturbed and calm — or at least this is what Russell is saying here.
Fatigue, which for Russell means mental exhaustion, not only one of the body, is the next factor that causes unhappiness in our lives.
“A great many worries can be diminished by realising the unimportance of the matter which is causing the anxiety,” he writes. This is a standard trope of many philosophies of life. The same we have heard from Epicurus, the Stoics and Buddhism, among many other spiritual teachings. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse. Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so. (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation)
Russell’s recipe for avoiding anxiety goes something like this:
When some misfortune threatens, consider seriously and deliberately what is the very worst that could possibly happen. Having looked this possible misfortune in the face, give yourself sound reasons for thinking that after all it would be no such very terrible disaster. Such reasons always exist, since at the worst nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance. When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, ‘Well, after all, that would not matter so very much’, you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent. It may be necessary to repeat the process a few times, but in the end, if you have shirked nothing in facing the worst possible issue, you will find that your worry disappears altogether, and is replaced by a kind of exhilaration. (‘The Conquest of Happiness’)
This is an interesting approach. It is probably true that for most of us, our anxieties are not of such an existential nature that we would be utterly destroyed if the feared thing came to be. Even the loss of a job is seldom the end of the world. In time, one will find another job. What is the worst job one could imagine doing? Cleaning toilets? Working on a building site? If we really try to imagine how bad this would be, in all the detail we can imagine, we will probably see that it is all survivable. After all, thousands of people have such jobs and they also manage to do them. For many, just such catastrophic events as the loss of a job have been the catalysts that allowed them to finally step out of their comfort zone and change their lives to be more interesting and meaningful. There are many stories of people who, after becoming unemployed, picked up a craft and managed to sustain themselves with that; or became bloggers, writers, or Youtubers; or sold their house and moved into a van or a small plot of land in the country, where they finally found happiness and peace.
(…continued in part 2)
Thanks for reading! Do you agree with Russell? Do you disagree? Do you have your own experience with the causes of unhappiness that he discusses? Please leave a comment and stay tuned for the second part of this post.