“The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising, and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are forgoing one of the privileges that life has to offer.”
– Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell was not only one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century but was also one of the most prolific. He published a book a year for over sixty years, ranging from the extremely technical and influential Principia Mathematica, to those written for a mass audience such as The Conquest of Happiness. It is this latter book, published in 1930 and in which Russell discusses the causes of happiness and unhappiness in individuals, that I want to highlight today.
It should be noted from the outset that this is not an exhaustive meditation on the subject. As Russell acknowledges in the preface, “no profound philosophy or deep erudition will be found in the following pages. I have aimed only at putting together some remarks which are inspired by what I hope is common sense.”
Many of his observations and statements throughout the book, then, will not strike the levelheaded reader as terribly remarkable. This is not to say the work is trite or that it cannot be read profitably by those seeking wisdom. Just don’t crack open the covers expecting Russell’s genius to reveal the elixir of happiness.
Quite a variety of topics are touched upon. Family, work, hobbies, zest, envy, fatigue… In each of these Russell applies a sensible rationalism. But though the subject matter is of a timeless nature – and the principles he affirms largely are too – one can’t help but notice the numerous passages littered throughout the book in which Russell speaks to issues which have very little relevance for today’s world. The primacy of religious moralism and the burdensome sense of sin that occupied the minds of people back then, for example.
The vantage point afforded the modern reader also reveals attitudes towards women which today seem antiquated. It is for reasons such as this that Daniel Dennett, in his introduction, calls The Conquest of Happiness a “fascinating time capsule,” noting that “a good way to read the book is to consider it a temporal telescope that allows us to see how far we’ve come.” Lest I give the wrong impression about Russell, Dennett acknowledges the British philosopher “deserves some of the credit for moving our moral imagination out of obsolete orthodoxies into better territory.”
And so with that brief little introduction, please find below some of my favorite excerpts from the book.
“Success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.”
“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 at all times. When a difficult or worrying decision has to be reached, as soon as all the data are available, give the matter your best and make your decision; having made the decision, do not revise it unless some new fact comes to your knowledge. Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.”
On Unfulfilled Desires
“To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”
On Envy and Contentment
“The man who has double my salary is doubtless tortured by the thought that some one else in turn has twice as much as he has, and so it goes on. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, dare I say, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot therefore get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some person even more successful than you are. You can only get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that comes 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.”
On Living Your Own Life
“I think that in general, apart from expert opinion, there is too much respect paid to the opinion of others, both in greater matters and in small ones. 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.”
“There is of course no point in deliberately flouting public opinion; this is still to be under its domination, though in a topsy-turvy way. But to be genuinely indifferent to it is both a strength and a source of happiness. And a society composed of men and women who do not bow too much to the conventions is a far more interesting society than one in which all behave alike.”
“Affection in the sense of a genuine reciprocal interest of two persons in each other, not solely as means to each other’s good but rather as a combination having a common good, is one of the most important elements of real happiness, and the man whose ego is so enclosed within steel walls that this enlargement of it is impossible misses the best that life has to offer, however successful he may be in his career.”
“The best type of affection is reciprocally life-giving: each receives affection with joy and gives it without effort, and each finds the whole world more interesting in consequence of the existence of this reciprocal happiness.”
“Love is to be valued because it enhances all the best pleasures, such as music, and sunrise in mountains, and the sea under the full moon. A man who has never enjoyed beautiful things in the company of a woman whom he loved has not experienced to the full the magic power of which such things are capable.”
“Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps most fatal to true happiness.”
My Favorite Quote from the Book
“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 salve 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.”