The Conquest of HappinessThe Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.


Like many people, I suspect, I find Russell an extremely agreeable person. And though he is, no doubt, several orders of magnitude cleverer than I am, I still identify very strongly with him. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking, but the more I read Russell, the more I find that, in outlook and temperament, I am rather similar to the man—apart from his aristocratic English manners, of course. Thus it was a pleasure to read his views on what makes for a happy life, as almost everything he said resonated very strongly with me.

Russell’s aim is to examine not extraordinary grief or mourning or tragedy, but the usual sort of unhappiness that Thoreau meant when he said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And Russell’s message boils down to something simple: happiness comes from taking a genuine interest in the world, and unhappiness consists in spending too much time thinking about oneself and one’s problems.

Here is a simple example. If, on my walk back from work, I run into my neighbor, who then proceeds to tell me—for the umpteenth time—about his recent hunting trip, I can choose to see it as an imposition on myself, a needless waste of my time, a sign of this man’s stupidity, and finally as a part of a general decline in good manners and good taste. Or I can, with any luck, choose to see it as an amusing foible, as a window into another person’s life, or at the very least as something absolutely trivial and not worth fussing about. The difference is that the first is self-centered and more than a bit unrealistic, while in the second scenario my attention is directed outwards and I maintain a sense of perspective.

Russell fills up a book by exploring this idea from a variety of angles. What are the emotions that focus our attention inward and cause us to lose our perspective and our zest for life? Envy, greed, guilt, ruthless competitiveness, the need for approval, fear of public opinion. To combat these pulls, Russell recommends ways to constantly remind ourselves that we aren’t, in fact, the center of the universe, and the world around us is not some backdrop for our problems or an obstacle in the way, but is rather extremely interesting and a good deal more important than our own lives.

One of Russell’s key strategies is to take an interest in things that have no practical benefit to us. Simple as this sounds, many don’t seem to understand this lesson. It always strikes me as bizarre and shortsighted when someone says, “Why should I learn about this? It doesn’t affect me in any way. Will this ever be useful?” But isn’t this the point? Learning about wildflowers, for example, is relaxing because you won’t have to rely on this knowledge to pass an exam or to get a paycheck; it’s a relief from your usual cares, and one that, besides, enriches your experience of the world. And not only does learning about wildflowers enrich your experience, but it also reminds you that there’s an entire region of reality—one that people have devoted their lives to—that will be completely unaffected if you go bankrupt tomorrow. Isn’t that a nice thought?

In some places, this book shows its age. Russell speaks of women in ways that would probably get him tarred and feathered now; though, to be fair, at the time he was considered extremely progressive. At another point, Russell partly blames the growing unhappiness of women on the decline in good domestic service. Yet these bits are easy to ignore and forgive; and much of the book still feels relevant. Russell is particularly good on envy, competitiveness, and workaholism. These three—very prevalent here in New York City—are deeply intertwined.

So many people—and I am not excluded from this—make themselves miserable by thinking about all the nice things happening to everyone else, all the money their cousin is making (who’s not, after all, any smarter than me!), and all the luck that some people seem to have. They look in the mirror and think about the handsomer fellow on television; they receive their paycheck and think about how much their boss must make. This has been exacerbated by social media, but is, I think, something we all must deal with, especially in a capitalistic society where, ostensibly at least, your social position is determined by your own merit. The dark side of living in a supposed meritocracy is that people at the bottom or even comfortably in the middle feel that they are failures for not reaching the top—which is obviously absurd, especially if you realize that the people at the top most likely aren’t any happier than you are.

Thinking about yourself purely in relation to others leads directly to a certain amount of competitiveness; many people struggle, not to attain something they need, but simply to win a race against their peers. This is the cause of obsessive working. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with working, and working hard, but some people have completely lost a sense of perspective. In fact, I recently read a piece by someone who had spent his life in advertising—Lind Redding was his name—who detailed this very phenomenon after he was diagnosed with cancer and started looking back on his working life. After working furiously for decades, he concluded that, after all, he was only trying to make advertisements, so why on earth had he spent so many stressful hours at the office rather than at home?

This has happened to me, though on a much smaller scale, when I have been convinced that what I was working on was terribly important and that the consequences for not doing it perfectly would be disastrous—when, in reality, what I was doing was of no importance and the consequences of doing it imperfectly would be nonexistent. A proper sense of perspective would have helped me avoid this, for I would realize that other people’s success doesn’t make me a failure, that I have more than I need already, that my task is a very minor event in the universe, and that the earth won’t detonate if every detail isn’t just right. Or at least, I hope it won’t.

I’m getting a bit carried away. To return to the book, Russell, with his usually acute mind, tackles this trouble, among others, offering friendly advice on how to avoid it and to maintain a mental balance. And lucky for the reader, Russell’s advice is usually summed up in wonderful epigrams that sparkle with good-natured wit. I constantly found myself highlighting sentences in this book, as I read in continuous astonishment at Russell’s skill with the pen. His style is neither flashy nor even conspicuous; he uses no tricks, no elaborate metaphors, no high-flown words. Yet every time I read Russell, I find myself filled with envy at his writing ability; I think it’s criminal that there should be someone so much better than I am. Russell would, of course, remind me that after all there will always be someone who’s a better writer than I am, and that his prose should be appreciated as a gift rather than considered as a reproach to my own. Now, how do you argue with a person like that?

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