Bertrand Russell was one of the world’s great thinkers. A philosopher, critic, activist, and prolific writer, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. He published over seventy books in his lifetime, notably including Why I Am Not a Christian (1927), Marriage and Morals (1929), and A History of Western Philosophy (1945). This week we consider The Conquest of Happiness, Russell’s 1930 meditation on why people tend not to enjoy their lives, and how they can go about fixing that problem.
I don’t remember exactly how I heard about Conquest of Happiness, but I think it was either through Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety – which is structured similarly – or through Brain Pickings, which I follow on Facebook. In either case, it came to me via a source that I value for little inspirations.
But Russell’s book is more than a little inspiring. An early forerunner to self-help literature, it covers a wide range of causes – first of unhappiness, then of happiness – and treats them with exactly the sort of wise and gentle humor that only a seasoned thinker can channel with conviction. His purpose, he says, is to suggest a cure for ordinary day-to-day unhappiness.
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 very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends. These are matters which lie within the power of the individual, and I propose to suggest the change by which his happiness, given average good fortune, may be achieved. (23-24)
A highly quotable guide to deliberate living, this book makes you think about the things that make you feel the way you do. The 2013 print features an introduction by Daniel Dennett, who highlights the book’s many strengths and a few of its anachronisms.
So that’s the gist. Where to begin?
One of the many striking things about this book is how…striking it is. You and I have both read a ton of philosophy, some psychology, and a mess of other stuff that addresses questions about how to live well. And yet, I gather that we were both more impressed and engaged by this little volume than by lots of the Kant, Nietzsche, and Foucault we’ve imbibed over the years.
For me, I think it has something to do with Russell’s straightforwardness. You described his writing really well above – wise, gentle, seasoned. In college, I probably would have found Russell’s style simple to the point of suspicion. I liked my philosophers angry and obscure, because I wanted proof of my own passion and sophistication. Now I just want the goods.
But maybe we can dive into some of his actual diagnoses and prescriptions. What struck you?
Well if I were to render Russell’s formula in a flow chart it would look something like this:
Do interior work > Do exterior work > Be happy.
As I mentioned, the first half of the book is all about identifying the many small causes of daily unhappiness, most of which are internal, and dismissing them from your mind. The second half is all about cultivating the causes of daily happiness, most of which are external, and so redirecting your attention from your inner hang-ups to the outer world of real and fulfilling life.
Once your focus has been adjusted from inner scrutiny to outer investment, you find that you’re actually pretty happy. Here’s Russell, at appropriate length:
In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.
This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired, and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire – such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other – as essentially unattainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself.
Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself – no doubt justly – a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt great affection.
External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds 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 preventative of ennui. (25)
There’s something very endearing to me about a depressive youngster who draws his strength from an earnest love of math. There are any number of ways to discuss the view that he would develop later in life – through the popular lens of non-clinical narcissism; the self-hating anxiety born of “Puritan education;” or the temperamental interiority of “introversion” – a term that Russell uses often and always in a pejorative sense. But the point of the book seems to be that we need to get out of our own heads and into the world of people and events.
I relate to that point a lot: OCD is always trying to tell me how terrible I am, and how consequential my latest mistake is going to be, etc. It’s a claustrophobic little room, and I spend a lot of time trying not to get dragged into it.
The birth of my daughter Addy has helped. I try not to treat her like a salve for any of my anxieties, but – miraculously – she just kind of is, all by herself. She draws me out of myself and into her world, and that tends to be way more interesting than whatever I’m worried about. When I’m caught up in mental struggle, it often dissipates most quickly when I hang with her.
This connects up with Russell’s thoughts about family. He thinks that for many of us, our families are the primary creative outlets of our lives, the place we put the biggest chunk of our energies and hopes for the future.
There are exceptions – he mentions artists with a burning commitment to their craft. (Perhaps we could add activists or entrepreneurs.) But I don’t feel like I’m any of those things, and until Addy came along, I felt like I had lots of energy that might go forever unspent. Now I’m less concerned about that. Life has gotten smaller, but it’s also gotten a lot richer. I’ve stepped off some of the repetitive little Tilt-a-Whirls in my head and become more fully a part of my family.
Anywho, what about you? How do you relate to his central prescriptions?
I appreciate Russell’s critique of religion – how religion condemns selfishness even as it makes selfishness inevitable. That was certainly my experience. When you grow up believing that the eyes of the universe are focused directly on your own sinful soul, you can’t help making yourself out to be more important than you actually are. This engenders an obsession with what Russell calls “the sense of sin,” which in turn really pollutes your view of yourself and your relationship to the world around you. There were times, maybe, when my concern about sin was useful to keeping me in line, but I’m not sure it was worth it on balance. At best, it may have put me in a position to grow up and beyond. Russell writes:
Our traditional morality has been unduly self-centered, and the conception of sin is part of this unwise focusing of attention upon self. To those who have never passed through the subjective moods induced by this faulty morality, reason may be unnecessary. But to those who have once acquired the sickness, reason is necessary in effecting a cure. And perhaps the sickness is a necessary stage in mental development. I am inclined to think that the man who has passed beyond it by the help of reason has reached a higher level than the man who has never experienced either the sickness or the cure. (101)
I don’t know if he’s right about that, but I suppose I am thankful that I have been able to see certain moral strictures both from inside and out.
I’ve lived with a hefty dose of the “sense of sin” for my whole life as well, and I would never wish it on anyone. It’s not just corrective – it’s hugely, punishingly overcorrective, and it warps and constrains us. As Russell suggests, it’s also based on bad ideas, and reason is one effective way to fight its straightjacket.
Of course, reason isn’t the only way to fight this mindset, and it’s not always the most effective. My sense of sin manifests most directly in obsessive-compulsive disorder – cycles of intrusive, repetitive thought, which then lead to impulses to ritualize in an effort to make the thoughts go away. For people with OCD, reason is a tricky thing – some forms of cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful, but OCD is often completely unresponsive to reason, and even takes advantage of reason to send the sufferer further down down the rabbit hole. (Have you thought of this angle? What about that? And isn’t there a chance of…? And so on, forever.)
My point here is that we’re often pushed by powerful emotions – especially fear – in directions we don’t want to go, and we may need more than reason to steer us in directions we value. Habits, mantras, quick rules of thumb, pledges not to reason endlessly about counterproductive impulses – these too can be helpful.
Part of the problem might be the language we’re using in the first place. I don’t like sin-talk (though I do like Russell’s descriptions of what it feels like to feel that you’re sinful). Like OCD, sin feels heavy to me – a huge pile of backbreaking (and nonsensical) metaphysics. Sure, sometimes we do bad or hurtful stuff, and moral emotions like guilt or remorse can help point us back to aspects of the world that we’ve overlooked (other people’s feelings, for example). But I suspect that for many people, thinking in terms of sin makes it harder to assess their own behavior and make smart, ethical adjustments.
The last time you and I hung around in real life I was struggling my way through Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man, which makes another argument about the problem of interiority v. exteriority, and since then I have dabbled a bit with Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, which famously does something similar. So if you read these books together there seems to be a convergence of minds.
You could come out of that reading with a sort of general thesis: To be happy, stop micro-analyzing yourself, stop comparing yourself to other people (especially your weaknesses to their strengths and your failures to their accomplishments), replace your enviousness with admiration, broaden your interests, and make commitments to the world. Immediately prior to his second-half discussion of qualities including zest, affection, family, and work, Russell sums it up in those terms:
The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile. (143)
I think you are in a great position to comment at this particular moment, for exactly the reason you mentioned above – having spent so many years wrestling with the intense interiority of OCD, you are now enjoying the exterior company of a new daughter. I’ve heard (or read?) that having a child is the experience of watching your heart go walking (or crawling?) around in someone else’s body. So what do you think? Is that the secret?
Interesting! I don’t think I identify with her that closely. I mean, I love her, and I like her, and I care for her, but I’m also very aware that we’re two separate people, and I hope to get to know her well over time.
But I do think the quieting effect that she has on me is related to the ways she shifts my attention. When we’re changing her diaper or giving her a bath, my attention is on her. My own interior squabbles are still there sometimes, but the volume is lower. She pulls me out of myself in ways that nobody else can.
Part of that is due to her vulnerability. I expect a lot of my friends and family in terms of self-care and self-respect; I find it tough to spend extended time with people who don’t engage with their own difficulties in a serious way. (Of course sometimes I’m not as friendly as Russell counsels.) But my daughter isn’t capable of all of that yet. She genuinely does need me (even if she also needs to be left alone sometimes). I find myself more than happy to be there for her, and I don’t find myself doing much thinking about what else I could be doing.
I like the summary of Russell (and Sennett and Lasch) that you offered. Seems like there’s a lot of overlap with some of the ancients, too. How would you comment on these ideas?
It seems to me that being happy is largely a function of self-unconsciousness, which is a difficult thing to achieve in a highly self-conscious, self-centered, self-critical day and age. It’s also a little paradoxical in that pursuing it means forgetting yourself en route to achieving a self-interested goal (happiness). But I could see the pursuit itself offering a meaningful structure to your life, sort of like a creed. A lot of people probably follow it already, even if not in those specific terms.
I think Russell would say that if everything you’re doing is covertly directed toward achieving happiness, it’s not gonna work – you can’t trick yourself like that. Instead, I think he’d say that you actually have to engage with other pursuits for their own sake. (A.C. Grayling says the same thing – that happiness is a byproduct, and that it’s entirely possible to not even be aware that you’re happy.)
These pursuits could be lots of things – relationships, chess, writing a blog with your friend from middle school. But in order to lose (or at least reduce) our self-consciousness, I think we typically have focus our consciousness on something else. (Even in meditation, you don’t just blank out – you focus on your breath or some other object of attention, and you return to it thousands of times in order to slowly weaken your cycles of self-obsessed thought. Meditators refer to sitting as “practice,” and what you’re practicing, I think, is loosening your mind’s habit of thinking that there’s some self – or some goal – to worry about.)