In the first part of this post, we talked about what are, for Bertrand Russell (The Conquest of Happiness, 1930) some of the reasons people are unhappy: fashionable pessimism, competition, boredom, and fatigue that comes from anxiety. In this second part, we will examine four more factors that contribute to unhappiness: envy, the sense of sin, persecution mania and the fear of public opinion.
The Conquest of Happiness and Why It Matters Today
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, 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.
Unhappiness from envy
“Of all the characteristics of ordinary human nature,” Russell writes, “envy is the most unfortunate; not only does the envious person wish to inflict misfortune and do so whenever he can with impunity, but he is also himself rendered unhappy by envy. Instead of deriving pleasure from what he has, he derives pain from what others have. If he can, he deprives others of their advantages, which to him is as desirable as it would be to secure the same advantages himself.”
This is an irrational behaviour that causes the envious person to invest effort not into improving their own condition but into making others worse off. If nothing is done to control and limit envy, Russel believes, envy might affect the whole of society and bring it into a downward spiral where, in the end, everyone is equally miserable.
How then, can we get rid of envy?
Russell proposes happiness as an antidote to envy. Someone who is happy will be content with what they have and will not be looking to compare themselves with others.
“With the wise man, what he has does not cease to be enjoyable because someone else has something else. Envy, in fact, is one form of a vice, partly moral, partly intellectual, which consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations.”
So when we have a salary that is sufficient for us, we should not look to compare it with the salary of others. Doing so would not increase our own salary, but merely remove the happiness that we can gain from it and replace it with sadness.
For Russell, the source of envy goes back to childhood. If the parents seem to prefer one child over another, this, he believes, will cause the less advantaged one to develop a disposition to envy. Unnecessary modesty also leads to envy, he believes, and so the way to best raise children would be to teach them that they are the best just as they are. We see echoes of that in many of today’s pedagogical methods:
“For my part, I think there is much to be said for bringing up a boy to think himself a fine fellow. I do not believe that any peacock envies another peacock his tail, because every peacock is persuaded that his own tail is the finest in the world. The consequence of this is that peacocks are peaceable birds.”
I am no child psychologist, but it seems at least questionable to me whether we should be raising children who don’t have any sense of their own limitations and who think that they are perfect, without feeling the need for any self-improvement. Isn’t the wish to improve oneself, to fight one’s shortcomings and to develop one’s good sides, a good thing?
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The sense of sin
“Sin,” for Russell, is a concept that applies not only to the deeply religious. Through the way most human societies have been built upon religious foundations, the concept of sin seeps into the consciousness of even those who today would not call themselves religious.
“But the sense of sin in its most important forms is something which goes deeper. It is something which has its roots in the unconscious, and does not appear in consciousness as fear of other people’s disapproval. In consciousness, certain kinds of acts are labelled ‘Sin’ for no reason visible to introspection. When a man commits these acts he feels uncomfortable without quite knowing why.”
A sense of sin, Russell believes, is not a good moral guide. Not only is it irrational, but it also makes the person feel inferior to others, which then causes symptoms similar to envy: the desire to hurt those he considers morally superior and to see them fall into sin themselves. Such a person will become disagreeable to others and increasingly socially isolated. In contrast,
“An expansive and generous attitude towards other people not only gives happiness to others, but is an immense source of happiness to its possessor, since it causes him to be generally liked. But such an attitude is scarcely possible to the man haunted by a sense of sin.”
Another problem with examining one’s sins is, in Russell’s view, that it tends to make us look too much at ourselves. But the focusing on one’s own self is what, for Russell, is the main cause of human unhappiness. Happy people, he thinks, are oriented outward in their interests. They act in the world, instead of constantly looking at themselves and measuring themselves against others.
We would think of this as perhaps a very severe kind of delusion. But Russell means it in a more everyday sense, an experience that we all, more or less, have had: the feeling that others talk badly of us, that they mock us or gossip about us behind our backs. Or someone always “doing good” to people against their wills and then being “horrified that they display no gratitude.”
The basis of this problem is an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or one’s own merits, according to Russell. If I believe that my work is the best, then why does no one else rave about it, promote it, and shower me with compliments? Obviously, they must all somehow be conspiring against me.
There seems to be a problem here. In his discussion of envy, Russell suggested that we should give children a sense of their perfection, a belief in their absolute superiority. And now he says that just that belief is the source of what he calls ‘persecution mania’. I don’t see how these two things can be reconciled. If his analysis is right (which I personally doubt), then we’d have to choose between adults who are deluded about their abilities and feel ignored by others; or we could have adults who are self-critical and realistic about their own abilities, but full of envy for others. If you see how one could understand Russell better here, please tell me in the comments.
Personally, I think that Russell, despite him being a brilliant logician and philosopher, has just arrived at the end of his psychological abilities in this analysis. I don’t know that he had any formal training in psychology and it shows here. Somehow, one’s sense of self-esteem must be connected to both phenomena: envy and persecution mania, but it doesn’t seem to be quite as simple and straightforward as Russell makes it appear.
Unhappiness and the fear of public opinion
Finally, the last common reason of unhappiness that Russell discusses is the inability to fit into one’s social surroundings. Especially exceptional young people find it hard to fit into the community of a school or village. In university, they may for a few years find others like them, and in big cities generally one can find like-minded people. But often, we have to live among people who either don’t understand us, don’t want to engage with us, or have totally different opinions and values than we do. In such cases, the bad fit between the individual and the social environment becomes a source of loneliness, isolation and anxiety.
One might be tempted to argue that this would have been more of a problem in Russell’s time than today. In the 1930s, when the book was written, England was still rural to a large extent, and villages are difficult places for creative and intellectual young people to find friends with similar interests. One would be tempted to say that today, the Internet has changed this landscape. Using social media, every young person can connect to any number of others who have exactly the same interests, no matter what these interests are. Online, one can find model aeroplane clubs, societies for the protection of seals, Youtube videos on novel ways of teaching calculus, Mars colonisation advocates and poetry writing groups.
Russell’s book is an eye-opening treatise on happiness, as seen from the perspective of a famous philosopher in the mid-20th century. Get it here!
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But, on the other hand, this ability to find like-minded people has also led to a decrease in our willingness to tolerate others’ pursuits and opinions. In an age where everyone can easily immerse themselves in a social bubble of their own making, we are losing the ability to engage with others who are different from us. De-platforming, online shaming and the so-called cancel culture are sometimes just the new clothes in which the age-old intolerance of others’ opinions present themselves. And since young people today are much more dependent on the Internet for their social lives, these new forms of intolerance can perhaps become as threatening to their well-being as it might have been in old times to be a young artist in a backward rural community.
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