The Conquest of Happiness
by Bertrand Russell (1930)
notes by Doug Muder (1999)
- These notes consist of a brief biography of Bertrand Russell, a short discussion of the allowances that a present-day reader must make when reading Conquest, a detailed outline of the book, and a discussion of three themes. Quotes and summaries of Russell's views are in roman type; commentary and study questions are in italics.
About Bertrand Russell
Orphaned at the age of 3, Russell was raised by his grandparents (the former prime minister and his wife) who went to court to gain custody of Bertrand and his brother from the younger, more progressive guardians named their father's will. The elderly Russells provided a household that was politically liberal, religiously conservative, strict, and rather old-fashioned. Bertrand was educated by tutors and had little contact with other children his age. Much of his career can be interpreted as a revolt against his upbringing. Though he held onto (and radicalized) many of his grandparents' liberal political views, he rejected their religion, and throughout his life was unable to think of religion as anything other than old-fashioned, traditional, judgmental, and superstitious. His attraction to abstract studies like philosophy and mathematics was a marked contrast to his grandfather's worldly practicality. His liberal educational theories were a rejection of the form his own education, and his ethical writings (especially his views about sex) were a rejection of the content. When he skewers Victorian nostalgia in Chapter 2 of Conquest, he speaks from childhood experience that he is not the least bit nostalgic for.
Russell's politics were always controversial. He viewed World War I as a kind of mass insanity (and was personally annoyed that it interrupted his collaboration with Ludwig Wittgenstein). He was imprisoned for pacifism in 1918, a great scandal for a Lord. He espoused socialism for much of his life, and was one of many liberal intellectuals to give credibility to the Soviet Union when he visited in the 1920s. After World War II he was a leader in the movements to encourage nuclear disarmament and to protest the Vietnam War.
With his second wife, he founded the experimental progressive Beacon Hill School in 1931. (He was married four times and divorced three times.) His appointment to the faculty of City College in New York was revoked in 1940 after public protests concerning his personal life and writings about sexual morality.
He wrote many popular essays, some of which have been collected in books like Why I Am Not a Christian and Mysticism and Logic. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
Caveats About The Conquest of Happiness
Almost any statement that Russell makes about animals is a projection. Consider, for example, the first line of the book: "Animals are happy so long as they have health and enough to eat." Did he acquire this knowledge through conversation or by telepathy? Animals frequently play for Russell the role that "the noble savage" played for Rousseau; they represent nature unaffected by civilization.
The book contains a number of historical misperceptions that were common among liberal intellectuals of the day. For example, the Soviet Union was thought to be a grand experiment, with no hint of the police state horrors that we are now so well aware of. "The creation of an organization may be of supreme importance. So is the work of those few statesmen who have devoted their lives to producing order out of chaos, of whom Lenin is the supreme type in our day." [page 167] Again, I recommend we simply shake our heads and move on.
Psychological terminology has changed greatly in the last seven decades. Nervous fatigue, for example, refers to a variety of conditions that we now might call depression or stress or chronic anxiety. Fortunately, Russell uses a number of hypothetical examples, so it is usually not difficult to guess what his psychological terminology must mean. Russell wrote this book long before the advent of anti-depressant drugs, and so he cannot be expected to know or discuss the physiological aspects of happiness and unhappiness. (Though he does speculate "Perhaps when biochemistry has made further advances we shall all be able to take tablets that will ensure our having an interest in everything." [page 128]) The extent to which attitude, mood, or temperament is the result of brain chemistry or genetic makeup is something that a man of 1930 could not have understood as well as we do today.
Further caveats are given by Russell in the first chapter: "I shall confine my attention to those who are not subject to any extreme cause of outward misery." [page 17] In other words, if you object that Russell's prescriptions are not adequate to find happiness for people in abject poverty, in great physical pain, or subject to persecution of one sort or another, Russell would probably have agreed with you. He also acknowledges that the causes of much unhappiness "lie partly in the social system, partly in individual psychology -- which, of course, is itself to a considerable extent a product of the social system. I have written before about the changes in the social system required to promote happiness. Concerning the abolition of war, of economic exploitation, or education in cruelty and fear, it is not my intention to speak in this volume." [page 16]
Preface"No profound philosophy or deep erudition will be found in the following pages. I have aimed at putting together some remarks which are inspired by what I hope is common sense. ... It is in the belief that many people who are unhappy could become happy by well-directed effort that I have written this book." [page 11] What do you think of this belief? Could many unhappy people become happy by well-directed effort?
The Causes of Unhappiness
1. What Makes People Unhappy?"My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable. I believe this unhappiness to be largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to the destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or of animals, ultimately depends." [page 17] Notice the assumption that the external world is more easily changed than the internal world. I could imagine someone saying exactly the reverse: "Because this unhappiness has no external cause, it ought to be escapable." Which is closer to your own view? Also, do you agree with the assumption that most people in civilized countries are unhappy?
"I was not born happy. ... Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life. ... Very largely [this] is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. ... Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly on external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection. External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain. ... But pains of this kind do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with self. And every external interest inspires some activity which, so long as the interest remains alive, is a complete preventive of ennui. Interest in oneself, on the contrary, leads to no activity of a progressive kind." [page 18] Much of Conquest is devoted to the superiority of external interests to introverted interests. I discuss this in Theme B.
Russell goes on to describe common types of self-absorption: the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac. He finds a common factor in them: "The typical unhappy man is one who, having been deprived in youth of some normal satisfaction, has come to value this one kind of satisfaction more than any other, and has therefore given to his life a one-sided direction, together with a quite undue emphasis upon the achievement as opposed to the activities connected with it." [page 22]
2. Byronic Unhappiness"It is common in our day, as it has been in so many other periods of the world's history, to suppose that those among us who are wise enough have seen through all the enthusiasms of earlier times and have become aware that there is nothing left to live for. ... I do not myself believe that there is any superior rationality in being unhappy. The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit, and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead. ... I wish to persuade the reader that, whatever the arguments may be, reason lays no embargo upon happiness." [page 24]
Russell points to Lord Byron as a proponent of this view, which he says was put forward "for all time" by the author of Ecclesiastes, who said "all is vanity and a vexation of spirit". Russell makes a distinction between having a mood where all effort seems vain, and holding the philosophical position that there is no value in life.
"I have frequently experienced myself the mood in which I felt that all is vanity; I have emerged from it not by 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 of whether there is ultimate value in human life or not. ... The feeling is one born of a too easy satisfaction of natural needs. The human animal, like others, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle for life, and when by means of great wealth homo sapiens can gratify all his whims without effort, the mere absence of effort from his life removes an essential ingredient of happiness. The man who acquires easily things for which he feels only a very moderate desire concludes that the attainment of desire does not bring happiness. If he is of a philosophic disposition, he concludes that human life is essentially wretched, since the man who has all he wants is still unhappy. He forgets that to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness." [page 27]
He sums up the intellectual argument of Ecclesiastes as follows: "Over and over again in an endless, purposeless cycle men and things are born and die without improvement, without permanent achievement, day after day, year after year." [page 28] And he responds: "The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. ... Life is not to be conceived on the analogy of a melodrama in which the hero and heroine go through incredible misfortunes for which they are compensated by a happy ending. I live and have my day, my son succeeds me and has his day, his son in turn succeeds him. What is there in all this to make a tragedy about?" [page 29]
The hidden issue in this chapter is hope. Ecclesiastes says there is no reasonable basis for hope, and Russell's response in this chapter is that hope is not absolutely necessary for a happy life. Later in Conquest Russell introduces a transpersonal notion of hope that completes his answer to Ecclesiastes. I have collected these ideas under the theme Transcending Personal Hopes and Interests.
3. CompetitionRussell paints a bleak picture of the businessman so obsessed by competing with other businessmen for success that the rest of life passes him by. "Success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it." [page 43]
First he observes that the competition of the workplace is not nearly so serious as is usually imagined; failure does not result in death or starvation. People take the competition so seriously either because they do not realize they can take it less seriously, or because they believe that it would be dishonorable to slack off. "It is singular how little men seem to realize that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which they remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level." [page 40] "So long as he not only desires success, but is wholeheartedly persuaded that it is a man's duty to pursue success and that a man who does not do so is a poor creature, so long his life will remain too concentrated and too anxious to be happy." [page 42]
This result follows from our educational values: Americans value education only so far as it contributes to success, and have ignored the role of education in teaching us to appreciate the finer things in life. Consequently we have no idea what to do with success when we have it, other than keep racing to achieve more success. "Education used to be conceived very largely as a training in the capacity for enjoyment -- enjoyment, I mean of those more delicate kinds that are not open to wholly uncultivated people. ... Unless a man has been taught what to do with success after getting it, the achievement of it must inevitably leave him prey to boredom." [pages 44-45]
"It is not only work that is poisoned by the philosophy of competition; leisure is poisoned just as much. The kind of leisure which is quiet and restoring to the nerves comes to be felt boring. There is bound to be a continual acceleration of which the natural termination would be drugs and collapse. The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life." [page 47]
4. Boredom and ExcitementWe have come to associate boredom with unhappiness and excitement with happiness, but Russell argues that boredom and excitement form a separate axis entirely, having little relationship with happiness. "Running away from enemies who are trying to take one's life is, I imagine, unpleasant, but certainly not boring. ... The opposite of boredom, in a word, is not pleasure, but excitement." [pages 48-49] The confusion of excitement and happiness, and the flight from boredom that it entails, is a chief cause of unhappiness. The cure is to teach oneself to endure boredom without running from it.
"A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred. When savages have first tasted liquor at the hands of the white men, they have found at last an escape from age-old tedium, and except when the Government has interfered they have drunk themselves into a riotous death. Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom." [page 51]
"A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought of as an essential part of pleasure. ... There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty. ... A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young." [page 52]
"A boy or young man who has some serious constructive purpose will endure a great deal of boredom if he finds that it is necessary by the way. But constructive purposes do not easily form themselves in a boy's mind if he is living a life full of distractions and dissipations, for in that case his thoughts will always be directed towards the next pleasure rather than towards the distant achievement. For all these reasons a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase." [page 54]
It's too long to reproduce here, but be sure to read from "I do not like mystical language and yet ... " on page 54 to the end of the chapter on page 56. This section is as close to paganism as you will ever see Russell come.
"Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular kind of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxically as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall prey to the other far worse kind." [page 56]
5. FatigueThis chapter is actually about worry. Russell believes that such physical fatigue as people feel in the industrialized world is mostly healthy, and that only "nervous fatigue", caused largely by worry, is really destructive to happiness. Russell believes most worry could be avoided by learning good thinking habits, by refusing to over-estimate the significance of possible failures, by taking a larger perspective, and by facing fears squarely.
"It is amazing how much both happiness and efficiency can be increased by the cultivation of an orderly mind, which thinks about a matter adequately at the right time rather than inadequately all the time." [page 60]
"Our successes and failures do not after all matter very much. ... One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important." [page 61]
"A man who can center his thoughts and hopes upon something transcending self can find a certain peace in the ordinary troubles of life which is impossible to the pure egotist." [page 64] This is one of many places in the book where it might seem natural to say a good word about religion, but Russell does not.
"Every kind of fear grows worse by not being looked at. The effort of turning away one's thoughts is a tribute to the horribleness of the specter from which one is averting one's gaze; the proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar. In the end familiarity will blunt its terrors." [page 64]
He then deals with a question that recurs in Chapter 7 and elsewhere in the book. Worrying is largely an unconscious activity, so nothing is accomplished if you just convince your conscious mind that Russell is right. Somehow these ideas need to make it to the unconscious. Russell believes that they can. "My own belief is that a conscious thought can be planted in the unconscious if a sufficient amount of vigor and intensity is put into it. Most of the unconscious consists of what were once highly emotional conscious thoughts, which have now become buried. It is possible to do this process of burying deliberately." [pages 62-63]
6. Envy"Of all the characteristics of ordinary human nature envy is the most unfortunate; not only does the envious person wish to inflict misfortune, ... but he is also rendered unhappy by envy. Instead of deriving pleasure from what he has, he derives pain from what others have. ...The only cure for envy in the case of ordinary men and women is happiness, and the difficulty is that envy is itself a terrible obstacle to happiness." [pages 69-70]
"If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I dare say, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot therefore get away from envy by means of success alone. ... You can get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself." [pages 71-72]
"Unnecessary modesty has a great deal to do with envy. ... Modest people believe themselves to be outshone by those with whom they habitually associate. They are therefore particularly prone to envy, and through envy, to unhappiness and ill will. For my part, I think there is much to be said for bringing up a boy to think himself a fine fellow." [page 72] This point is illustrated by an amusing fable about peacocks.
"By far the most important thing is to secure a life which is satisfying to instinct. ... A man who is happy in his marriage and his children is not likely to feel much envy of other men because of their greater wealth or success." [page 74]
7. The Sense of SinTraditional religion, in Russell's view, has saddled us with an ascetic moral code that will make us unhappy if we keep it (by denying us joy in life) and also if we break it (by causing us guilt). The only solution is to root this moral code out of our unconscious, and replace it with a code less inimical to human happiness.
A weakness in this chapter is that Russell limits his discussion to irrational guilt. Just as serious a source of unhappiness, perhaps more so in our time, is the inability to let go of legitimate guilt. Surely everyone has done a few things that, even under a generous interpretation of morality, are wrong. We have also made choices that turned out badly or had the effect of increasing our own happiness at the expense of someone else. How a person deals with these experiences seems to me to have an enormous impact on his/her overall happiness.
"In a rational ethic it will be held laudable to give pleasure to any one, even to oneself, provided there is no counterbalancing pain to oneself or others." [page 80] "The problem here is the same as has confronted us in earlier chapters, namely that of compelling the unconscious to take note of the rational beliefs that govern our conscious thought." [page 83] But how is this to be done? "Whenever [irrationality] thrusts foolish thoughts or feelings into your consciousness, pull them up by the roots, examine them, and reject them." [page 83] "Most men, when they have thrown off superficially the superstitions of their childhood, think there is no more to be done. They do not realize that these superstitions are still lurking underground. When a rational conviction has been arrived at, it is necessary to dwell upon it, to follow out its consequences, to search out in oneself whatever beliefs inconsistent with the new conviction might otherwise survive, and when the sense of sin grows strong, as from time to time it will, to treat it not as a revelation and a call to higher things, but as a disease and a weakness." [page 84]
Russell seems to realize that this advice entails introspection on a scale that appears inconsistent with his advice not to dwell on the self. "The time spent in producing harmony between the different parts of one's personality is time usefully employed." [page 85] "Since rationality consists in the main of internal harmony, the man who achieves it is freer in his contemplation of the world and in the use of his energies to achieve external purposes than is the man who is perpetually hampered by internal conflicts." [page 87]
Russell presents moral progress as happening when reason triumphs over superstition and tradition. Contrast that view with this one: Great moral truths like "All people should be equal" or "Love your enemies" begin as flashes of irrational insight. In the beginning every known rational argument runs the other way, and only with time and great effort is it possible to construct a rational justification of the new insight.
8. Persecution ManiaThis is probably the most amusing chapter of the book, as Russell uses his droll wit to puncture human self-importance. "My purpose in this chapter is to suggest some general reflections by means of which each individual can detect in himself the elements of persecution mania (from which almost everybody suffers in a greater or less degree), and having detected them, can eliminate them. This is an important part of the conquest of happiness, since it is quite impossible to be happy if we feel that everybody ill-treats us." [page 90]
"Persecution mania is always rooted in a too exaggerated conception of our own merits." [page 92] Russell gives several hypothetical examples, such as: "Another not uncommon victim of persecution mania is a certain type of philanthropist, who is always doing good to people against their will, and is amazed and horrified that they display no gratitude." [page 93]
The chapter culminates in four maxims for detecting and avoiding persecution mania.
1. Remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself. "People who wish to have a high opinion of their own moral excellence have ... to persuade themselves that they have achieved a degree of unselfishness that it is very unlikely that they have achieved." [page 96]
2. Don't overestimate your own merits. "The playwright whose plays never succeed should consider calmly the hypothesis that they are bad plays. ... It is true that there are in human history cases of unrecognized merit, but they are far less numerous than the cases of recognized demerit." [page 96] "If you find that others do not rate your abilities as highly as you do yourself, do not be too sure that it is they who are mistaken. If you allow yourself to think this, you may easily fall into the belief that there is a conspiracy to prevent the recognition of your merit, and this belief is pretty sure to be the source of an unhappy life." [page 97]
3. Don't expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself. "Very often the conduct that people complain of in others is not more than the healthy reaction of natural egoism against the grasping rapacity of a person whose ego extends beyond its proper limits." [page 98]
4. Don't imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any desire to persecute you. "The insane victim of persecution mania imagines that all sorts of people who, in fact, have their own avocations and interests, are occupied morning, noon, and night in an endeavor to work a mischief to the poor lunatic. In like manner, the comparatively sane victim of persecution mania sees in all kinds of actions a reference to himself which does not, in fact, exist." [page 98]
Keeping these four maxims in mind might be deflating to the ego in the short term, but "No satisfaction based upon self-deception is solid, and however unpleasant the truth may be, it is better to face it once for all, to get used to it, and to proceed to build your life in accordance with it." [page 99]
9. Fear of Public Opinion"Very few people can be happy unless on the whole their way of life and their outlook on the world is approved by those with whom they have social relations, and more especially by those with whom they live." [page 100] "Whenever possible ... young people who find themselves out of harmony with their surroundings should endeavor in the choice of a profession to select some career which will give them a chance of congenial companionship, even if this should entail a considerable loss of income." [page 105]
"One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways." [page 107] "Fear of public opinion, like any other kind of fear, is oppressive and stunts growth. It is difficult to achieve any kind of greatness while a fear of this kind remains strong, and it is impossible to acquire that freedom of spirit in which true happiness consists, for it is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbors, or even our relations." [page 109]
The Causes of HappinessIn general, the second half of Conquest is not as impressive as the first. Not only is this section shorter than the first, but Russell has more of a tendency to ramble. These rambles can be entertaining, but they are usually not very informative. I am left with the impression that the causes of happiness remain mysterious to Russell. Once the obstacles to happiness are removed, happiness just happens -- somehow.
10. Is Happiness Still Possible?Russell begins by identifying two kinds of happiness: "one sort is open to any human being, and the other only to those who can read and write." [page 113] But before long it becomes clear that there is little difference between them. As examples of the first kind, he tells us about his gardener (who wages a perpetual war on rabbits) and a well-digger whose happiness "was based upon physical vigor, a sufficiency of work, and the overcoming of not insuperable obstacles in the shape of rock." [page 114] To the objection that educated people cannot find such simple happiness, Russell allows only that they must find different obstacles to overcome, ones more in line with their abilities. "The difference made by education is only in regard to the activities by which these pleasures are to be obtained. Pleasures of achievement demand difficulties such that beforehand success seems doubtful although in the end it is usually achieved." [pages 114-115]
Having bluffed us with this apparent distinction between sources of happiness, he goes on to identify several: work, belief in a cause, and absorption in a hobby. This is all in the style of a ramble, filled with entertaining anecdotes presented in an attitude of amused superiority. As an example of belief in a cause, he relates descriptions of characters who appear to be amiable lunatics: "The men I have known who believed that the English are the lost ten tribes were almost invariably happy, while as for those who believed that the English were only the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, their bliss knew no bounds." [page 120] And I am unsure what to make of this example: "The happiness of the reformer or revolutionary depends upon the course of public affairs, but probably even while he is being executed he enjoys more real happiness than is possible for the comfortable cynic. I remember a young Chinese visitor to my school who was going home to found a similar school in a reactionary part of China. He expected the result to be that his head would be cut off. Nevertheless, he enjoyed a quiet happiness that I could only envy." [pages 117-118]
Finally, around page 121, Russell gets serious again. "Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things. ... The kind [of interest in persons] that makes for happiness is the kind that likes to observe people and finds pleasure in their individual traits, that wishes to afford scope for the interests and pleasures of those with whom it is brought into contact without desiring to acquire power over them or to secure their enthusiastic admiration. The person whose attitude towards others is genuinely of this kind will be a source of happiness and a recipient of reciprocal kindness. ... To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness." [pages 121-122]
"It may be said that it is impossible to feel friendly to things. Nevertheless there is something analogous to friendliness in the kind of interest that a geologist takes in rocks or an archeologist in ruins. ... The man who can forget his worries by means of a genuine interest in, say, the Council of Trent, or the life history of stars, will find that, when he returns from his excursion into the impersonal world, he has acquired a poise and calm which enable him to deal with his worries in the best way, and he will in the meantime have experienced a genuine even if temporary happiness." [pages 122-123]
"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." [page 123]
11. ZestZest is the x-factor that causes us to be interested in life. Russell has little to say about what zest is or how to obtain it. He does argue against those who would devalue zest by claiming that it is a mark of superior taste not to be interested in vulgar or lowbrow subjects. "All disenchantment is to me a malady which ... is to be cured as soon as possible, not to be regarded as a higher form of wisdom. Suppose one man likes strawberries and another does not; in what respect is the latter superior? There is no abstract and impersonal proof that strawberries are good or that they are not good. To the man who likes them they are good, to the man who dislikes them they are not. But the man who likes them has a pleasure which the other does not have; to that extent his life is more enjoyable and he is better adapted to the world in which both must live." [page 125]
12. Affection"One of the chief causes of lack of zest is the feeling that one is unloved, whereas conversely the feeling of being loved promotes zest more than anything else does." [page 137] Unfortunately, considering the importance of affection to happiness, this chapter is almost completely descriptive rather than prescriptive. Russell describes the types of affection and evaluates their effects, but gives little advice about how to either give or get higher quality affection.
"The man ... who endeavors to purchase affection by benevolent actions becomes disillusioned by experience of human ingratitude. It never occurs to him that the affection which he is trying to buy is of far more value than the material benefits which he offers as its price, and yet the feeling that this is so is the basis of his actions." [pages 137-138]
"The child whose parents are fond of him accepts their affection as a law of nature. He does not think very much about it, although it is of great importance to his happiness. He thinks about the world, about the adventures that come his way and the more marvelous adventures that will come his way when he is grown up. ... By no means all affection, however, has this effect in encouraging adventurousness. ... The timid mother or nurse, who is perpetually warning children against disasters that may occur ... may cause them to feel that they are never safe except in her immediate neighborhood." [pages 139-140] "To define the best kind of affection is not altogether easy, since clearly there will be some protective element in it. ... I think, however, that apprehension of misfortune, as opposed to sympathy with a misfortune that has actually occurred, should play as small a part as possible in affection. Fear for others is only a shade better than fear for ourselves. Moreover, it is very often camouflage for possessiveness." [pages 140-141]
Some affection is given freely, but some is the result of insecurity. "In the best kind of affection a man hopes for a new happiness rather than for escape from an old unhappiness." [page 142]
13. The Family"Of all the institutions that have come down to us from the past none is in the present day so disorganized and derailed as the family. Affection of parents for children and of children for parents is capable of being one of the greatest sources of happiness, but in fact at the present day the relations of parents and children are, in nine cases out of ten, a source of unhappiness to both parties, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a source of unhappiness to at least one of the two parties. This failure of the family to provide the fundamental satisfactions which in principle it is capable of yielding is one of the most deep-seated causes of the discontent which is prevalent in our age." [page 145]
Russell places most of the blame for this on social causes that are outside the scope of this book:
1. Becoming a housewife and mother is a decline in status and an increase in drudgery for the modern professional woman. "In relation to her children, the sacrifices that she has made in order to have them are so present to her mind that she is almost sure to demand more reward than it is reasonable to expect, while the constant habit of attending to trivial details will have made her fussy and small-minded. This is the most pernicious of all the injustices that she has to suffer: that in consequence of doing her duty by her family she has lost their affection." [page 148]
2. Urbanization has led to a situation in which either children are raised with very little space, or long suburban commutes remove the father from the family.
A greatness of soul comes through identification with biological descendants. "To be happy in this world, especially when youth is past, it is necessary to feel oneself not merely an isolated individual whose day will soon be over, but part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future. ... Those who have allowed their procreative impulses to become atrophied have separated themselves from the stream of life and in so doing have run a grave risk of becoming desiccated. For them, unless they are exceptionally impersonal, death ends all. The world that shall come after them does not concern them, and because of this their doings appear to themselves trivial and unimportant." [pages 153-154] See Theme C for a larger discussion of greatness of soul.
Concerning the personal (as opposed to social) aspects of parenthood, the issues center around the proper use of power. "From a very early age there comes to be a conflict between love of parental power and desire for the child's good, for, while power over the child is to a certain extent decreed by the nature of things, it is nevertheless desirable that the child should as soon as possible learn to be independent in as many ways as possible, which is unpleasant to the power impulse of a parent. ... In a thousand ways, great and small, the possessive impulse of parents will lead them astray unless they are very watchful or very pure in heart." [pages 156-157] "The parent who genuinely desires his child's welfare more than his or her power over the child will, if sufficiently intelligent, not need textbooks on psychoanalysis to say what should and what should not be done, but will be guided aright by impulse. ... The full joy of parenthood is only to be obtained by those who can deeply feel this attitude of respect towards the child." [pages 157-158]
"We all feel pleasure when we are admired for our merits, but most of us are sufficiently modest at heart to feel that such admiration is precarious. Our parents love us because we are their children and this is an unalterable fact, so that we feel more safe with them than with any one else. In times of success this may seem unimportant, but in times of failure it affords a consolation and a security not to be found elsewhere." [page 155] It's worth remembering here that Russell experienced the parent-child relationship mainly as a parent -- his own parents having died in his toddlerhood. I suspect this is a projection of how he thinks children ought to feel, rather than the memory of a feeling he has experienced personally.
14. Work"Whether work should be placed among the causes of happiness or the causes of unhappiness may perhaps be regarded as a doubtful question." [page 162] Russell places it among the causes of happiness for a number of reasons:
1. It passes time. "To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level. ... Except to people with unusual initiative, it is positively agreeable to be told what to do at each hour of the day, provided the orders are not too unpleasant." [pages 162-163]
2. It provides an opportunity for success.
3. The work itself may be interesting. "Two chief elements make work interesting: first, the exercise of skill, and second, construction. ... All skilled work can be pleasurable, provided the skill required is either variable or capable of indefinite improvement. ... In some work, though by no means in most, something is built up which remains as a monument when the work is completed." [pages 164-165]
"Where it is possible to do work that is satisfactory to a man's constructive impulses without entirely starving, he will be well advised from the point of view of his own happiness if he chooses it in preference to work much more highly paid but not seeming to him worth doing on its own account. Without self respect genuine happiness is scarcely possible. And the man who is ashamed of his work can hardly achieve self respect." [pages 168-169]
15. Impersonal InterestsCertain interests are central to a person's conception of his/her life: career, family, and so forth. In this chapter Russell asserts the value of having interests that are not central, that have no effect on the major issues of life. Such hobbies and pastimes serve two purposes: (1) They provide an escape from larger worries, and distract the conscious mind so that the unconscious can work productively toward a solution. (2) They provide a reserve pool of interest in life, so that if disaster or a series of disasters destroy the pillars that support our central interests, we will have the possibility of growing new central interests.
This chapter contains an important tangential discussion of "greatness of soul" which I discuss under the Transcending Personal Hopes and Interests theme.
16. Effort and ResignationWhat Russell calls resignation is more popularly referred to these days as acceptance. The question discussed in this chapter is basically: Should we try to change the world or accept it the way it is? Russell takes a middle position, roughly equivalent to the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." The Serenity Prayer itself was not well known in 1930. The prayer was popularized by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. Bill W got it from the theologian Reinhold Neibhur, probably sometime in the 1940s. Neibhur attributed it to 18th century theologian Friedrich Oetinger, and some have claimed it for the 6th century philosopher Boethius. In short, Russell conceivably could have known the prayer in 1930, but probably didn't.
"Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstances. ... Happiness must be, for most men and women, an achievement rather than a gift of the gods, and in this achievement effort, both inward and outward, must play a great part." [pages 178-179] Russell draws attention to the following kinds of effort as playing a role in achieving happiness: making a living (plus enough extra to have a few luxuries and consider yourself successful), attracting a desirable mate, and raising children. "Speaking more generally, one may say that some kind of power forms the normal and legitimate aim of every person whose natural desires are not atrophied. ... The man who is actuated by purely altruistic suffering caused by the spectacle of human misery will, if his suffering is genuine, desire power to alleviate misery. The only man totally indifferent to power is the man totally indifferent to his fellow men. ... And every form of desire for power involves, so long as it is not thwarted, a correlative form of effort." [page 181]
"The wise man, though he will not sit down under preventable misfortunes, will not waste time and emotion upon such as are unavoidable, and even such as are in themselves avoidable he will submit to if the time and labor required to avoid them would interfere with the pursuit of some more important object." [pages 181-182] "Christianity taught submission to the will of God, and even for those who cannot accept this phraseology, there should be something of the same kind pervading their activities. ... The attitude required is that of doing one's best while leaving the issue to fate." [page 182]
Russell then describes two kinds of resignation, one motivated by despair and the other by "unconquerable hope". "The first is bad, the second good." [page 182] Despair is the result of defeat, and the defeated man "may camouflage his despair by religious phrases, or by the doctrine that contemplation is the true end of man. But whatever disguise he may adopt to conceal his inward defeat, he will remain essentially useless and fundamentally unhappy." [page 182] Unconquerable hope, on the other hand, is one of the most interesting concepts in Conquest. I discuss it further in the Transcending Personal Hopes and Interests theme.
"A certain kind of resignation is involved in willingness to face the truth about ourselves; this kind, though it may involve pain in the first moments, affords ultimately a protection -- indeed the only possible protection -- against the disappointments and disillusionments to which the self-deceiver is liable. Nothing is more fatiguing nor, in the long run, more exasperating, than the daily effort to believe things which daily become more incredible. To be done with this effort is an indispensable condition of secure and lasting happiness." [page 185]
17. The Happy ManIn the final chapter Russell comes back to his main point: attention should be focused outward, not inward. "It is not the nature of most men to be happy in a prison, and the passions which shut us up in ourselves constitute one of the worst kinds of prisons. Among such passions some of the commonest are fear, envy, the sense of sin, self-pity and self-admiration. In all these our desires are centered upon ourselves: there is no genuine interest in the outer world, but only a concern lest it should in some way injure us or fail to feed our ego." [page 187]
"The happy man is the man who lives objectively, who has free affections and wide interests, who secures his happiness through these interests and affections and through the fact that they, in turn, make him an object of interest and affection to many others." [page 188]
"What then can a man do who is unhappy because he is encased in self? So long as he continues to think about the causes of his unhappiness, he continues to be self-centered and therefore does not get outside the vicious circle; if he is to get outside it, it must be by genuine interests, not by simulated interests adopted merely as a medicine. ...Only what genuinely interests you can be of any use to you, but you may be pretty sure that genuine objective interests will grow up as soon as you have learnt not to be immersed in self." [page 188-189]
"The whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world ... disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons and things outside ourselves. Through such interests a man comes to feel himself part of the stream of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collision. ... The happy man is the man ... whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joy 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." [pages 190-191]
Themes in The Conquest of Happiness
A. Does the modern world work against happiness?Russell consistently argues that the modern world, the world created by science and reason, works for happiness, not against it. It is in our power to be free of many of the sources of unhappiness: boredom, self-defeating moral codes, pointless superstitions, fear of starvation, etc. Only in the chapter on envy does Russell acknowledge that the modern world presents unique challenges to happiness, by making us aware of so many people who have things and talents that we lack.
A more balanced view, in my opinion, is that (by increasing our power) science and technology have exposed us to temptations that earlier generations did not have to worry about. If we rise to the challenge and overcome these temptations, our chances for happiness are greater than those of previous generations. If we succumb to the temptations, we will be less happy.
The key metaphor here is the story [page 51] of aboriginal peoples who drink themselves to death once the white man makes alcohol easily available to them. Because we can satisfy our basic needs and generate excitement and entertainment easily, we modern people are open to the following addictive cycle: satiation leading to boredom leading to easy but superficial titillation leading back to satiation. Nothing in this cycle leads to real happiness, but it is difficult to break out of.
A similar temptation involves work. Moralists in an agricultural society can fulminate about the evils of idleness without harmful effect, since night and winter guarantee everyone sufficient rest and leisure. Today, however, we are confronted with the temptation to prove our "virtue" by working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When we fail to do this, we may feel guilty. We need to balance work and leisure consciously, and this requires us to be wiser than our ancestors. If we are not wiser, we fall prey to an unhappiness that circumstances once rendered impossible.
Now take a look at theme C and notice this: If the modern world is worse than the ancient world, then a theory of hope that depends on the progress of humankind falls apart. Russell had a vested interest in seeing the modern world in a positive light.
B. The Outerward-focused Life versus the Inward-focused LifeRussell is very clear that the outward-focused life is the only one that leads to happiness. "Where outward circumstances are not definitely unfortunate, a man should be able to achieve happiness, provided that his passions and interests are directed outward, not inward." [page 187] (And yet, some of his advice -- particularly concerning the sense of sin in Chapter 7 or worry in Chapter 5 -- would seem to require a great deal of introspection.) All happiness, he says in Chapter 1, depends on "natural zest and appetite for possible things". These are active, rather than passive traits. There would seem to be no room here for passive or contemplative sources of happiness. Later in the book he says: "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." [page 126]
His dismissal of the monastic life (which is in many ways not all that different from the academic life) struck me as abrupt and condescending: "The monk will not be happy until the routine of the monastery has made him forget his own soul. The happiness which he attributes to religion he could have obtained from being a crossing-sweeper, provided he were compelled to remain one. External discipline is the only road to happiness for those unfortunates whose self-absorption is too profound to be cured in any other way." [pages 18-19] We can only speculate whether Russell would have changed his mind if he could have met the Dalai Lama.
If this devaluing of the inner life seems puzzling, part of the answer lies in the way that Russell draws the boundary between internal and external pursuits. Much of his life was devoted to mathematics and philosophy, pursuits that most of us would classify as passive and contemplative -- not all that different from theology. In particular, the early work that made his name (Principia Mathematica, which he coauthored with Alfred North Whitehead, who later founded process theology) was focused on the logical roots of mathematics and the possibility of finding absolutely certain knowledge there. One could imagine looking on this activity as a spiritual quest, an introspection into the laws that governed his own thinking. To Russell, though, this was an external pursuit.
A great source of happiness is centered on those moments in life when the boundaries between the internal world and the external world seem meaningless. In the contemplation of great art, for example, external object and internal response form an undifferentiated whole. Russell, I believe, would claim these experiences for the external world, while others might claim them for the internal world.
A further clue lies in statements in Chapter 1 about Russell's own path to happiness: "Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly on external objects." [page 18] Contemplation of the self seems (to Russell) inescapably connected with contemplation of the deficiencies of the self. In Buddhist terms, this would not be a contemplation of the self at all, but of the ego, the self image. Russell appears to see no difference between contemplating the self (which Buddhists are taught to do in an open, accepting manner) and judging the self image. The examples of self-absorption that Russell gives -- the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac -- are all absorbed in judging their self-images.
Even in Christian terms Russell does an injustice to the contemplative life. One can certainly find numerous stories of Christian saints absorbed by their sense of guilt and unworthiness in the face of God's judgment. This is balanced, however, by the saints who describe the ecstasies they experience as objects of God's love. The annals of crossing-sweepers contain no comparable testimony.
In short, I think that Russell inappropriately universalizes his childhood experiences of Christianity and Christian contemplation, and enlarges these experiences to encompass religion and the contemplative life in general. His desire to see nothing of value in the contemplative life causes him to draw the line between the internal and external world in an unusual way.
C. Transcending Personal Hopes and InterestsNone of the chapters of Conquest directly confronts the fear of death, which is undoubtedly one of the great obstacles to happiness. In Chapter 2 Russell leaves unchallenged the notion that death makes all our long-term hopes vain, and argues only that the present is sufficient for happiness. Late in the book, however, it becomes clear that Russell does have long-term hopes and an answer to the fear of death. The sections of the text that put these views forward are largely tangential to the chapters in which they appear -- as if Russell sees the end of the book approaching and regrets not having brought these ideas up sooner, but does not want to rewrite earlier chapters to include them.
The central concept here is unconquerable hope, which Russell presents in Chapter 16 as leading to the positive kind of resignation, through which you come to accept the unavoidable imperfections and inadequacies of the world. "Hope which is to be unconquerable must be large and impersonal. Whatever my personal activities, I may be defeated by death or by certain kinds of diseases; I may be overcome by enemies; I may find that I have embarked upon an unwise course which cannot lead to success. In a thousand ways the failure of purely personal hopes may be unavoidable, but if personal aims have been part of larger hopes for humanity, there is not the same utter defeat when failure comes." [page 182] A man motivated by these larger hopes "may be forced to realize that what he has worked for will not come about in his lifetime. But he need not on that account sink into complete despair, provided that he is interested in the future of mankind apart from his own participation in it." [page 183]
The unconquerability of this hope is related to Russell's faith in the ultimate progress of humankind. "[If] you have as part of the habitual furniture of your mind the past ages of man, his slow and partial emergence out of barbarism, and the brevity of his total existence in comparison with astronomical epochs -- if, I say, such thoughts have molded your habitual feelings ... you will have, beyond your immediate activities, purposes that are distant and slowly unfolding, in which you are not an isolated individual but one of the great army of those who have led mankind towards a civilized existence. If you have attained to this outlook, a certain deep happiness will never leave you, whatever your personal fate may be. Life will become a communion with the great of all ages, and personal death no more than a negligible incident." [page 174]
Russell uses the term greatness of soul to denote the ability to expand one's sense of self to encompass humankind as a whole. "A man who has once perceived, however temporarily and however briefly, what makes greatness of soul, can no longer be happy if he allows himself to be petty, self-seeking, troubled by trivial misfortunes, dreading what fate may have in store for him. The man capable of greatness of soul will open wide the windows of his mind, letting the winds blow freely upon it from every portion of the universe. He will see himself and life and the world as truly as our human limitations will permit; realizing the brevity and minuteness of human life, he will realize also that in individual minds is concentrated whatever of value the known universe contains. And he will see that the man whose mind mirrors the world becomes in a sense as great as the world. In emancipation from the fears that beset the slave of circumstance he will experience a profound joy, and through all the vicissitudes of his outward life he will remain in the depths of his being a happy man." [pages 175-176]
I find myself wishing that Russell had said more about how greatness of soul is achieved. This seems to me to be the central question of practical humanism: How (without God, an afterlife, or any other mythological concept) do we attach ourselves to transpersonal interests so firmly that we can face inevitable personal death with equanimity? Without an answer to this question, it seems to me that the humanist is left to choose between a life-in-the-moment, ignoring the possibility of death, and the Byronic unhappiness of Chapter 2. If you consider yourself a humanist, have you found an answer to this question in your own life? How well does it work?
The decades that followed Conquest challenged this faith in ways that Russell could hardly have imagined in 1930. Because it occurred at the center of civilization rather than on the primitive periphery, the Holocaust brought into question the idea that humankind really is progressing. And the atomic bomb opened the possibility that the human race might destroy itself before it achieved any further progress. By the 1950s Russell's notion of "unconquerable hope" seemed much more conquerable than he had anticipated. Do either of these events cause a problem for your personal outlook on life?
The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 7
The behaviors that induce a guilty conscience vary across the globe, so conscience cannot be some sort of voice of the divine within us. Conscience takes on many manifestations, including the fear of being caught when apprehension is imminent – people can live perfectly well with the thought of their indiscretion, but suddenly repent when they are exposed. The fear of being outcast from society is a related dimension of conscience – a dimension that does not apply to those innovators who do not accept the prevailing morality, and hence do not feel that they have sinned when they have violated that morality.
A sense of sin frequently resides in the subconscious. People have a vague feeling that a certain behavior is sinful, even when reason does not proclaim it to be so. This feeling does not fully deter the behavior, but ensures that guilt is a constant presence. The inchoate sense of sin generally is a vestige of moral precepts implanted in childhood. Thus guilt accompanies lying, cursing, alcohol, tobacco, and anything sexual. In childhood, these topics would cost a boy the approval of his mother or nurse; in adulthood, he retains the guilt, though has forgotten its origin. The association of morality with asceticism is contrary to reason – a rational morality would encourage any pleasure that brought no harm to anyone.
“If a child has been conventionally educated by somewhat stern parents or nurses, the association between sin and the sex organs is so firmly established by the time he is six years old that it is unlikely ever to be completely undone throughout the rest of his life… The result is that adult men feel women to be degraded by sex, and cannot respect their wives unless their wives hate sexual intercourse [p. 81].” Conventionally educated women try to avoid taking pleasure in sex, though nowadays, among the educated, it is men whose sex lives are most distorted by the morality they learned as a child – and this distortion is most likely to exhibit itself in weak moments. The unconscious feeling of remorse for acts that are not objectively objectionable can be combatted by a vivid impression of the rational view. “Look into the irrationality closely with a determination not to respect it and not to let it dominate you [p. 83].”
A sober approach to morality will reveal that much of the moral teaching given to the young is foolish, while the sorts of moral issues that will be relevant for adults go unaddressed. Respectable people fall short of morality all the time with regard to sharp business dealings, cruelty toward intimates, overzealousness in political disputations, and so on. These behaviors bring real costs, not just to those nearby but to civilization more generally. Nevertheless, people’s minds are untroubled by them, they do not imagine reproachful looks from their mothers concerning these transgressions. This illustrates the absurdity of most moral teaching to the young, which focuses on actions that do not cause harm, to the exclusion of those that do. “Our nominal morality has been formulated by priests and mentally enslaved women. It is time that men who have to take a normal part in the normal life of the world learned to rebel against the sickly nonsense [p. 84].” Rebellion is not enough for happiness and consistency, however; one must also think through and root out all of the secondary emanations of those superstitions learned as a child.
Even violations of a rational moral code are not best reacted to by a sense of sin – the concomitant loss of self-respect, which makes one feel unhappy and inferior, redounds to no good. It makes one solitary and envious. “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 [p. 85].” This generous attitude demands a harmonious nature, where the conscious and the unconscious mind mesh well. Most people can achieve this harmony if they think hard about what their rational beliefs are, and root out even fleeting feelings inconsistent with those beliefs. The time devoted to this process (which needn’t be prodigious if the reasoning is forceful) is well-spent: “Nothing so much diminishes not only happiness but efficiency as a personality divided against self [p. 85].” One cannot become a moody self-analyst, however – happiness and mental harmony require that our energies be directed outward, not inward.
The notion that rationality comes at the sacrifice of more profound emotions is erroneous. In the beneficent emotions, there is nothing for reason to condemn. The internal harmony that rationality promotes provides the space for the outward orientation that is requisite for happiness. Rationality can help us overcome the self-centeredness which arises from the sense of sin. When we achieve internal harmony in this fashion, we no longer equate pleasure with intoxication; rather, it is complete possession of our faculties that brings us pleasure. Russell concludes the chapter: “The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties, and the fullest realization of the world in which we live [p. 88].”