Bertrand Russell wrote a book on how we can become happier in our day-to-day lives. He called this book The Conquest of Happiness. Far from being his usual technical philosophy style of writing, the conquest of happiness is a book which considers the causes for both happiness and unhappiness. But he adds some caveats to that.
Russell says he does not care to discuss cases where starvation is afoot, or economic hardship is present. Obviously, those cases are best dealt with by food and money. But, in the case of those who have both food and money, what then causes either their happiness or unhappiness? That is what Russell aims at in this book. As he puts it:
“I shall confine my attention to those who are not subject to any extreme cause of outward misery. “ (pg, 5)
“My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable”. (pg 5)
So, rather than dealing with happiness in general, which some people could easily think a book titled “the conquest of happiness’ is aiming to do, he is instead focused on a kind of unhappiness that arises when our basic animal needs are met. The unhappiness caused by a more modern life.
The book is broken down into two parts. The first part is the causes of unhappiness, and the second part of the book considers the causes of happiness. We shall explore unhappiness first.
Causes of Unhappiness
What makes people unhappy?
Russell begins our journey through modern unhappiness by giving us autobiographical information. He says:
“In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide”. (pg 6)
Russell experienced a boredom for life very early on. He could not find joy. What saved him, however, was a preoccupation with mathematics, and this taught him a lesson.
“I enjoy life: I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more; this partly due to having discovered what were the things I mostly desired and having gradually acquired most of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself”. (pg 6)
For Russell, those who are preoccupied with themselves are preoccupied with a static object which seldom changes or makes progress, and which we direct constant criticism and admonishment towards. When we practice a skill, we can witness a progress of sorts. We see things change, however slowly, over a given period of time. And that progress is rather rewarding. But on top of that, we seldom admonish external things for not living up to some set of morals or standards. We constantly critique ourselves, however, for precisely those reasons. And it is only because we are too preoccupied with ourselves that we do such.
He elaborates by giving us three types of self-absorption:
“Self-absorption is of various kinds. We may take the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac as three very common types”. (pg 7)
The sinner, not being strictly religious, is someone who is absorbed in the consciousness of sin. Someone who applies to every one of their own behaviors and beliefs a set of morals and standards which they must abide by. The more strict the sinner is in their application, the more unhappy they will be. We are taught this form of self-absorption not only from religious education but also secular education. The rules and morals of society become internalized within us, and we become lost in the consciousness of sin whenever we apply those rules and morals.
Another form of self-absorption is narcissism. Russell recognizes that some self-interest is healthy, but there are those who are so concerned with themselves that it becomes unhealthy. The example of narcissism has todo with being interested in ourselves to the point where we require everyone to likewise be interested. Put another way, recognition from others is key to validate our importance. Russell believes this form of self-absorption is far too limited for a happy life.
Someone who is interested in having the affection of others, but suffers from narcissism in excess, will move away from anyone who they know they have affection from. That is, if John wants Jane’s love, he will pursue her. And if John gets Jane’s love, and John is a narcissist, he will lose interest. Why? Because he wants as many people as possible to love him, so he needs to focus on those who do not love him. The same dynamic happens with narcissistic artists. Rather than developing their styles further, after a certain point they are more focused on public recognition and so reproduce whatever gets them recognition.
Russell believes the human instinct is far more diverse than mere recognition, and so to have a truly enriched life, we need to be able to focus on other instincts of human nature. We must not only want appreciation, but also enjoyment in the process.
“The primitive man might be proud of being a good hunter, but he also enjoyed the activity of the chase”. (pg 9)
The last kind of self-interest Russell wanted to point out was megalomania. As Russell says:
“The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved.” (pg 9)
Russell viewed the narcissist and megalomaniac as similar, of course one sought power and fear rather than charm and love. Figures like Alexander the great or Napoleon were megalomaniacs. And since these men sought only the furtherance of their power, they could not live enriched lives. They could not know a life without worry, as someone was always coming to usurp them; they could not know a life of simple pleasures, as they were often too busy; and they lacked an inner peace, as they always wanted more power and grandiosity. Put another way, “there is no ultimate satisfaction in the cultivation of one element of human nature at the expense of all others, nor in viewing all the world as raw material for the magnificence of one’s own ego”.
Thus, a healthy amount of self-interest is alright. But if we are too internally focused, to the point where the world is secondary, then we run the risk of unhappiness. Having too much free time can indeed come with the hazard of too much internal reflection and thus too much unhappiness. There is, after all, a joke that existential philosophy is only for the rich.
Byronic unhappiness is perhaps my favorite chapter in the book. As someone who has spent countless hours around philosophy readers and students, all too common is the theme of byronic unhappiness. So, I had a real joy reading Russell’s arguments against byronic unhappiness.
But what is byronic unhappiness? Let me quote Russell at length here:
“It is common in our day, as it has been in many other periods of the world’s history, to suppose that those among us who are wise have seen through all the enthusiasms of earlier times and have become aware that there is nothing left to live for. 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”. (pg, 12)
Yes, byronic unhappiness is a kind of intellectual unhappiness. And it seems only to stem from a naturalist view. People suppose there is a cold, dark nature to the world, that there is no inherent, and therefore should be none whatsoever, meaning in the universe. To be tricked by your evolutionary emotions, of which are designed to ensure you continue your biological purpose of propagation, is only a testament to your own ineptitude.
Or, put another way, man works his entire life, then he dies, and nothing changes. No new atoms were added to the world, we have only changed the position of things; and the universe will eventually die, so why bother with effort and living.
In addition to these pessimistic philosophies, we also have a romanticism of history and solitary philosophies, of which Russell likewise considers to be somewhat grim. Some among us romanticize history to the point where we claim it is better than modern times. The doctrine of wanting to live as a hunter gatherer rather than a modern civilian. Russell believes such a worldview to be based on times of poverty, famine, and war. That people only make these arguments during hardship. And, for the stoics, Russell sees no reason to accept their worldview either. The belief that life is suffering, that discipline is freedom, that we must be hard and exert pure will onto the world are all recipes for isolation and a solitary life, which will not bring us social creatures ultimate happiness.
For Russell, we are creatures of love, of socializing, of community, of vulnerability, and so stoicism seems to be a perversion and rejection of our humanity.
What is concluded from all of these mistaken philosophies is that they are not based in argument but instead in mood. These philosophies arise in the context of social and economic pressures, not in the context of rational argumentation. From suffering follows no necessity to exert will or live in the past. Naturalism follows no need for pessimism.
“I do not for a moment believe that this pessimism had any metaphysical cause. Its causes were war, poverty, and violence”. (pg 19)
“The Stoics and the early Christians believed that a man could realise the highest good of which human life is capable by means of his own will alone, or at any rate without human aid; others again have regarded power as the end of life, and yet others mere personal pleasure. All these are solitary philosophies in the sense that the good is supposed to be something realisable in each separate person, not only in a larger or smaller society of persons. All such views, to my mind, are false, and not only in ethical theory, but as expressions for the better part of our instincts. “ (pg 22)
Boredom and Excitement
Another cause of unhappiness is boredom, as well as a lack of excitement. Boredom for Russell has two essential elements. The lack of preoccupation of mental faculties, and the contrast of our current circumstances with some more agreeable circumstances. And, the opposite of boredom, for Russell, is excitement; meaning, preoccupation of mental faculties and agreeable circumstances.
Russell actually believes we have become less bored as a species. Technology, he says, has made us less bored. And that is even more true in our modern times. We now have video games, movies, and fancy phones. All that, however, causes a problem for us. As Russell puts it: “we are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom”. (pg 37)
We, in our need to avoid boredom at all costs, have become addicted to excitement. We cannot live a happy life without excitement, since we have such a low tolerance for boredom. And Russell believed we no longer taught children how to tolerate boredom. If he saw the modern children holding iPads and iPhones, he would be shocked. So, in modern times, we are addicts that constantly seek out excitement, since we are fearful of boredom.
But there is another negative to our incredibly exciting lives. A happy life requires boredom because most meaningful things in life can only be reached through periods of boredom. To have a long-term romantic relationship, we must endure times of boredom in the relationship; to achieve a tremendous level of skill in a craft, we must endure the monotony of routine; to build a successful company, we must endure the times where growth is slow but steady. And since we cannot tolerate boredom, we miss out on those meaningful things in life.
I agree with Russell on those points. Happiness can only be truly acquired if we learn how to tolerate boredom. We ought to stop seeking out excitement at every opportunity to do so. Too much excitement is not a good thing.
Russell has some very interesting views on envy, and he explains the problems of envy quite well. As example:
“Of all the characteristics of ordinary human nature 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”. (pg 56)
Envy causes us to be ungrateful for what we have, and have disdain for what others have. But, that is not even the most interesting thing Russell has to say about envy. On the one hand, envy leads to a false modesty, and on the other hand, envy is both necessary and harmful to democracy.
Take, as example, a king who is envious that a peasant has more attractive cheekbones than himself. Out of envy, said king could outlaw men showing their cheekbones because it is immodest. Now, what we have is a morality around modesty which is in fact just envy in the clothing of morality. The same can hold true for other forms of morals. For example, it is arguable that the social norm of not discussing personal finances at a social event may very well stem from envious onlookers who are not as well off. Which brings us to democracy.
The democratic suppression of the wealthy is motivated by envy. The demand that a religious party has as much influence as a secular party is caused by an envious outlook. Democracy runs on envy. And when that envy becomes too much, it can also poison a democracy. For instance, when some men or women do not like that women are given as many rights or even special rights, they can become bitter to the point of unhealthy participation in the democracy.
There are some honorable mentions that we should discuss. Russell has other chapters that deal with competition, fatigue, and persecution mania, among others. I will only mention two briefly, since their ideas are good.
Competition for competition’s sake is a plague on happiness. Those who take everything to be competitive are much like people who take everything to be political. Are there always losers and winners? Maybe. But you are definitely a loser if you cannot step out of that head space and relax. There should be nothing competitive about going for a walk.
As for persecution mania, it is the idea that we are always manifesting the feeling of being persecuted. An inventor who feels his invention never got enough attention because others dislike him, a person who feels their gestures are under-appreciated because no one likes them, or a worker who feels their work is neglected because they are not given enough thanks. Those are all instances where the world is some way that we do not deem desirable because someone dislikes or is persecuting us. That is something which Russell argues is in most cases not true, and almost entirely a fiction within our own minds.
Causes of Happiness
Is Happiness Still Possible?
Russell believes there are two types of happiness. In a fashion similar to higher pleasure and lower pleasure, Russell believes there is happiness acquired from the animal spirit and from education. Or, as he puts it:
“Perhaps the simplest way to describe the difference between the two sorts of happiness is to say that one sort is open to any human being, and the other only to those who can read and write”. (pg 99)
The simpler pleasures are things like baseball, going for a walk, or having a conversation with friends. In contrast, the pleasures that require education are limited to those who can read and write. Examples are work of science, work of philosophy, work of finance, or even work of novel writing or poetry. And if we cannot engage in those higher level forms of pleasure, then our life is less happy for it.
I somewhat disagree with Russell on that view, but if we are to steel man his position, we should interpret him as saying there comes pleasure from the work we can do after sufficient education, independent of whether that education involves reading and writing, and there is pleasure from things which require no educational prerequisites to engage in.
From that Russell outlines the life of a scientist as being, arguably, the happiest as a scientist can engage in higher pleasure, and at the same time have their higher pleasure greatly respected within society. As long as a scientist engages in the lower or simpler pleasures as well, they should have a good life.
So, put another way, as long as we pursue higher and lower pleasure, or pleasure of the head and pleasure of the heart, then we too can reach happiness.
Another important element for happiness in life, according to Russell, is zest. By zest, we mean an appetite for life. In the book, we are offered an analogy. A hungry man will eat their food too quickly and fail to enjoy the meal; a man who views food as a chore will consider all meals a bore; the ideal is to have an appetite for food, but never too much nor too little food. And we should have a preference for a breadth of meals, as the same meal can become boring.
Zest is an eagerness toward life. And zest causes happiness because those who have an appetite for life will fulfill that appetite more often than those who never sought out the fulfillment of their appetites. Someone who wanted to learn an instrument but opted not to because life is inherently meaningless will never know the joy, the taste, of playing classical music., for instance.
Russell also makes apparent that a zest for life cannot be too narrow. If we become experts at one topic, we could argue there is a zest there. But that is not the breadth we need in life, as humans are not narrow, single function machines. He says:
“Very specialized interests are, however, a less satisfactory source of happiness than a general zest for life, since they can hardly fill the whole of a man’s time, and there is always the danger that he may come to know all there is to know about the particular matter that has become his hobby”. (pg 115)
He closes the chapter on zest by cautioning that society can make zest hard to maintain. Zest does require, for instance, a curiosity of sorts; and if our industrial society has beaten curiosity out of us, we are unable to manifest zest. As an example, when Russell went for a walk in some garden with graduate students, he found himself amongst experts of the garden. Yet, when he asked knowledge outside of the specialized tour guides, such as what kind of flowers he was looking at, there was no response given. Society, in other words, can make us become too focused or destroy our natural curiosities, and in doing so, ruin our general zest for life.
Another cause of happiness for Russell is affection. Affection grants happiness in two ways. On the one hand, affection itself is a joyful thing. And on the other hand, receiving affection encourages a general zest for life.
In tune with the theme of Russell’s ideas so far, love is one of the many general features of human instinct. Not only do we want love, but we also want to give love. Much of human history, in fact, can be characterized by love. Love of country, love of nation, love of king, love of religion, love of family, love of knowledge. We humans are lovers of things and people. So, to deny our need for love would be to deny happiness.
And if we consider those who are loved, they are much more secure in life. Those who are loved can take risks in life because they know they are secure in their love. A man who knows his partner will love them no matter what will be less limited by social pressures and thus pursue a wider breadth of social activities; a woman who knows her partner will love her no matter what will be less inclined to abide by oppressive social norms because she has a support base; and so, she will pursue a wider breadth of interests, she will have a greater zest for life.
But Russell does caution us:
“By no means all affection, however, has this effect in encouraging adventurousness. The affection given must be itself robust rather than timid, desiring excellence even more than safety on the part of its object, though of course by no means indifference to safety.” (pg 125)
If we are receivers of timid love, we can embody the mood of that timid love. For instance, when a child receives care from an anxious nurse, who proceeds to tell the child that the world is full of dangers, the child can embody that worldview and thus experience a weaker zest for life. Love, if it is timid, can cause greater harm than good, greater unhappiness than happiness.
Likewise, family is also a double-edged sword for Russell. Family is a cause of either unhappiness or happiness, depending.
In modern times, our family structure and role continuously changes because of, according to Russell, democracy. He says:
“The change in the relation between parents and children is a particular example of the general spread of democracy. Parents are no longer sure of their rights as against their children; children no longer feel that they owe respect to their parents.” (pg 135)
Parents now have less economic control over their children due to the democratization of work, and as a result, they try to flex moral control over their children as a substitute. Which of course only serves to upset the children and causes unhappiness in the family. Similarly, children no longer opt to inherit the family line of work. Children pursue their own career paths, despite the wishes of the parents, and that likewise causes more tension.
And with more democracy also came more rights for children. Children have protection against child labor, and protection from their own parents. Parents cannot force onto their child too much work, else the state will step in. And parents no longer have tyrannical power over the forms of punishment to be given to their children, else the state will step in.
Democracy, for Russell, is a good thing. He believes these are all improvements. But these changes, due to the fact that they allow for children to pursue their own interests, can cause unhappiness. Though, with that said, Russell still believes family is a tremendous source of happiness. When the problems of the modern family are successfully navigated, an increase in happiness is certainly to come; for a complete human life involves a life with family.
Some other causes of happiness for Russell are work and disinterest. In Russell’s view, work in general beats idleness. As idleness leads to boredom, which in turn, leads to unhappiness. That one is obvious enough.
More interesting, however, is disinterest. Disinterest, on the one hand, allows us to engage in actions that we are not concerned about, and thus grants us an ability to relax. When we are playing table tennis, we are not all that concerned about optimization and competitive advantages. So, we are granted the ability to relax but not be idle. In addition, disinterest grants us a sense of proportion. We are able to see things we do not ordinarily do, and so we understand more thoroughly our relative position within society. But, more importantly, and on the other hand, disinterest grants us an outlet. Since meaningful work must be pursued for a happy life, we will pursue that meaningful work even when hardships arrive. That means, it is necessary for a happy life for us to have an outlet where we can unplug. An outlet where we are disinterested in what we are doing.
Overall, Russell’s book on the conquest of happiness I found to be good. His ideas are not esoteric, despite some of them being counterintuitive. And much of what he has said can be readily applied to life almost immediately. In addition to that, his book did not come off as a general self-help book with generic insights and solutions, but it instead read like someone who has genuinely reflected on life and derived insights which are often missed or not considered.
If you want a more philosophical book on the causes of happiness and unhappiness, then this is a terrific book!