8 Causes of Modern Unhappiness

A Study of Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness

Bertrand Russell didn’t understand why people were so unhappy all the time. He grew up in a rich aristocratic family in the United Kingdom, but he was lonely and suicidal as a teenager. He said the only thing that kept himself from suicide was wanting to learn more math.

Growing up, Russell had every advantage. His grandfather was a British Prime Minister. The influential philosopher John Stuart Mill was his godfather. He traveled to Paris and climbed the Eiffel Tower shortly after it was built. He co-authored the three-volume Principia Mathematica, which made him world famous in his field.

But looking around, it confused him that rich people were just as unhappy — if not more unhappy — than anyone else. Didn’t they have everything at their disposal to be happy? And more than any other generation in history?

He observed:

“Stand in a busy street during working hours, or on a main thoroughfare at a weekend, or at a dance of an evening…. You will find that each of these different crowds has its own trouble… In the work-hour crowd you will see anxiety, excessive concentration, dyspepsia, lack of interesting in anything but the struggle, incapacity for play, unconsciousness of their fellow creatures.”

In his 20s, Russell witnessed the suffering of someone close to him, and he developed what he called “a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable.”

Russell in 1938

In 1930, he published The Conquest of Happiness, which examined why society seemed to be so miserable. In the preface, he says the book contains merely “common sense,” but that the principles “increased my own happiness whenever I have acted in accordance with them.”

He first identified eight maladies that were causing unhappiness in his age: Meaninglessness, competition, boredom, fatigue, envy, guilt and shame, persecution mania and fear of public opinion.

“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,” he writes.

The following is a summary of what Russell wrote in 1930, which 88 years later, still sounds remarkably contemporary. This is Part 1 in a 2-part series. (You can read Part 2 here.)

Part I: The Causes of Unhappiness

Meaninglessness

For this example, Russell points to a contemporary philosopher who wrote a gloomy, pessimistic book called The Modern Temper in 1929. That book challenged contemporary views of scientific progress and optimism, noting that, “Ours is a lost cause and there is no place for us in the natural universe.” Pretty grim.

Russell calls this “Byronic unhappiness,” referring to the melancholy, melodramatic poet Lord Byron.

Russell notes that this bleak worldview is hardly new, illustrating how the writer of Ecclesiastes despaired that there is “no new thing under the sun,” and that everything is just “vanity.”

Russell dismisses this existential angst — EVERYTHING IS MEANINGLESS!! — as a form of intellectual snobbery. He says that these writers are “proud of their unhappiness,” self-identifying as a select elite group smart enough to discover the true nature of the lonely human condition.

Russell calls this “pathetic.” He tells his fellow philosophers to stop wearing their weariness as a badge of honor.

My friend Joseph Simmons, SJ, calls the attractiveness of this attitude “the privilege of unbelief, which signals to others, “What rarified airs we breathe, floating into intellectual stratospheres that most people heretofore were incapable of reaching!”

Russell was a famous atheist, but he was also a glass-half-full kind of guy. He pointed out that there’s always two ways to look at a situation:

Russell prodded grim, dour philosophers to look on the bright side of being a meaningless speck in the universe.

Let’s say, just for example, that you’re going to die and turn into nothingness. Look on the bright side!

“If I lived forever the joys of life would inevitably in the end lose their savor,” Russell writes. “As it is, they remain perennially fresh.”

Decades later, Steve Jobs echoed this sentiment in his famous Stanford commencement speech:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Russell then quotes the poem Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher, which frames death as a natural and peaceful end to the embers of life:

I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

Facing meaninglessness can also produce meaningful art. I’m reminded of hearing the song Alt Shells from Bethlehem Steel. Here’s a description from All Songs Considered:

Alt Shell is “a simple vignette of a young woman who struggles to get out of bed while questioning the point of anything. Singer Becca Ryskalczyk says “‘Alt Shells’ is just my basic day-to-day brain. Struggling many days to get myself to move. Sometimes feeling a lot of things sometimes feeling nothing.”

And this was the reaction from Robin Hilton from All Songs Considered:

One of the many great lines in this song, she says: “Why do we create our own importance when actually we don’t mean anything at all?” That sounds like a really bleak way of looking at the world. But I’m actually down with what I think she’s ultimately saying in this song, which is, there is no meaning in life, and that’s actually OK. there’s a difference between purpose in life, or mattering, and meaning. And the search for meaning is this silly thing we’ve completely invented. I always think about how my dog and my kids don’t spend any time thinking about this, and they love life… Life is still pretty awesome.

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Competition

Russell starts this chapter with a horrifying Joseph Conrad story of a ship in the Antarctic that descended into cannibalism. Two men on the ship have guns, and they both try to kill each other.

Finally, after a nightlong stand-off, a shipmate named Falk kills the other man with a gun. Here’s an excerpt of Falk telling his story:

“They all died,” Falk said. “But I would not die. All died, all! under this terrible misfortune. But was I too to throw away my life? Could I? Tell me, captain? I was alone there, quite alone, just like the others. Each man was alone. Was I to give up my revolver? Who to? Or was I to throw it into the sea? What would have been the good? Only the best man would survive.”
The best man had survived. Both of them had at the beginning just strength enough to stand on their feet, and both had displayed pitiless resolution, endurance, cunning and courage — all the qualities of classic heroism. Then after the report of the two shots, followed by a profound silence, there crept out into the cold, cruel dawn of Antarctic regions, from various hiding-places, over the deck of that dismantled corpse of a ship floating on a grey sea ruled by iron necessity and with a heart of ice — there crept into view one by one, cautious, slow, eager, glaring, and unclean, a band of hungry and livid skeletons. Falk faced them, the possessor of the only fire-arm on board, and the second best man — the carpenter — was lying dead between him and them.
He was eaten, of course.

Holy crap.

THAT, my friends, is competition.

Forget politics or the NFL or trying to have a nicer car than your neighbor, killing and eating your shipmates is the ultimate competition.

This situation is what Russell calls “the struggle for life.” It’s a bleak survival-of-the-fittest view of everything.

The problem is most of us are not caught in a ship in the Antarctic in a dire fight to the death for our life. We just think we are.

A little competition is healthy, and can bring out the best in people. But competition becomes counterproductive when we view everything as flight or fight, life and death, and a grand battle for control.

Reminder: A promotion at your white collar job is not a struggle for life.

Stop taking yourself — and everything around you — so seriously, Russell says. In modern-day parlance, Russell would say don’t be a douchebag.

He was especially critical of money and material success being the main point system we use to tally this competition. Around the time he wrote his book, we started measuring human output in terms of Gross Domestic Product.

Today, the younger generation is souring on the emptiness of the constant competition of capitalism, as umair haque has written about:

We built this thing called GDP in the 1930s, and then we just…stopped building lenses with which to see each other. Now it’s the only lens we use. But through this lens of “Gross Product”, we only see each other in one limited, tiny, narrow way: what we produce and spend on it. We don’t see what we are accomplishing, how we are living, whether our societies cohere and hang together, whether our lives are flourishing and unfurling and growing and maturing — and how we feel about it all. Other countries don’t see the world in this strange one-dimensional way — across Europe, in Canada, detailed statistics about well-being are collected. America alone in the thrall of hypercapitalism believes that only seeing people as assets and liabilities is clarity, not the very definition of blindness. Hence, GDP “grows” — while an opioid epidemic ravages the land.
What happens when we treat our young like assets and liabilities to be profit-maximized this quarter, because that’s the only we’re able to see them? Not like human beings, with impossibly beautiful, life-affirming things to give, like the vaccines and cures and internets and Mona Lisas and Fifth Symphonies and 1984s of the future, that still reside in their hearts and souls, yet unmade — and never can be, if not held and lifted up with gentle support and careful nurturing, at the precise moments they fall? Well, this does. We squeeze the juice out of them, until we ourselves are bloated — but our orchards stand desolate and empty.

For Russell, the dark portrait that Haque paints of modern-day American youth is the natural outcome of overemphasizing competition for material success. As someone who was who grew up extremely wealthy but was suicidal, he has a unique perspective on the adage that money can’t buy happiness.

“Nor do I deny that money, up to a certain point, is very capable of increasing happiness; beyond that point, I do not think it does so,” he writes. “What I do maintain is that success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.”

Russell compared those who live for competition to modern day dinosaurs. Living this way, he says, is not sustainable.

“The prodigious success of these modern dinosaurs, who, like their prehistoric prototypes, prefer power to intelligence, is causing them to be universally imitated… this is likely to be increasingly the case for the next hundred years,” he writes. “However… the dinosaurs did not ultimately triumph. Intelligent bystanders inherited their kingdom.”

By the way, we’re getting close to the hundred year mark that Russell references.

Boredom

Ever since we stopped chasing down wooly mammoths for dinner, life became a little more boring. We traded adventure for stability.

I think about that sometimes when I go to the grocery store and have more food than any generation in history instantly at my fingertips. I have fresh fruits, meats, vegetables and every other manufactured food product available for a short trip down the check-out line.

Kind of boring, when you think about it.

But boredom isn’t necessarily bad. For Russell, boredom only becomes dangerous when we treat it as something to avoid at all costs, and go to great lengths to stay in an unhealthy state of excitement.

“We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom,” Russell writes. “We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.”

It’s hard to believe this was written nearly a century before smartphones.

In defense of boredom, Russell says that too much excitement all the time isn’t healthy. Just chill out:

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 an essential part of pleasure, he writes.

I’m reminded of Kris Gage’s article: Great love is “boring,” not impassioned.

Here’s an excerpt:

Boring is beautiful. By “boring,” I mean stability, consistency, reliability. We can hang our hat on these things; we can only build on a solid, unwavering foundation. Greatness is built with consistency. As true for relationships as it is for anything. When a partner (or the relationship) is up, down, hot, cold, ecstatic, pissed, etc., we spend far too much time managing their feelings and not enough time actually building the relationship.

Boredom can be constructive, as Gage writes, or “fructifying,” as Russell likes to call it. This is the reason why I give my students an assignment to be bored. The small moments of boredom build creativity and resiliency.

Russell said we should get back in touch with the rhythms and cycles of nature. Some days are exciting, but most days are not.

Russell writes:

“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men undly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowerly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Don’t fritter away the calm before the storm. Relish it, and use it to prepare.

Fatigue

I grew up being physically active. I ran cross country and track, I threw hay bales around in the summers on our small family farm, I worked a physical, blue collar job in a warehouse to save money for college.

None of that prepared me for working my first 40-hour work week as an intern in college at the Associated Press. Each night, I collapsed in bed around 9 pm. As a college student used to staying up to 1 or 2 in the morning each night, I didn’t understand why my body was suddenly so weak.

(Jess Cigelske can talk about trying to drag me out of my dorm room to get me to go to the bars.)

I was confused as to why I was so bone-tired. I was a physically fit guy. But this was a different kind of tired — mental fatigue. And all I did was go to the office, sit around all day and talk to people.

I’m used to this feeling now. But like anyone else who makes a living in front of a computer screen, by the end of the night my brain feels dried up, enveloped in a cloud of cobwebs, hopelessly unable to process any information.

Russell calls this “nervous fatigue,” as opposed to the physical fatigue of manual labor. This fatigue accumulates from the rush hour commute, dealing with the moods of bosses and coworkers and the anxieties of keeping your job. Little by little, these daily frustrations build up and wear on your nerves.

“The result of all this is that when sound success comes, a man is already a nervous wreck, so accustomed to anxiety that he cannot shake off the habit of when the need for it is past,” Russell writes. “Most moderns lead a nerve-racking life and are continually too tired to be capable of enjoyment without the help of alcohol.”

Russell’s antidote to high work anxiety reminds me of Office Space strategy: Stop caring.

In Office Space, the main character, Peter, hates his job. So he goes to a hypnotherapist that treats anxiety and depression. Peter explains his problem:

PETER
So I'm sitting in my cubicle today and I realized that ever since I
started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the
day before it. So it means that every single day you see me, that's on the worse day of my life.

DR. SWANSON
What about today? Is today the worse day of your life?

PETER
Yeah.

DR. SWANSON
Oh, that's bad stuff.

Dr. Swanson hypnotizes Peter and puts him in a state of deep state of relaxation free of worries, cares or ambition.

Then the doctor falls over dead, before he snap his fingers. Peter remains indefinitely in this blissful state of not caring. Cue the hijinx of him sleeping in, taking apart his cubicle, and ignoring his boss.

That, of course, is when he starts getting ahead at work. He has Straight to Upper Management written all over him, according to his assessment.

Office Space is a fictional comedy. But does this have some basis in reality?

Jerry Seinfeld uses his own insignificance in the face of the cosmos to be a calming, creative force. That’s why he hung photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope in the Seinfeld writers’ room.

“People say, ‘It makes me feel insignificant.’ And I don’t find being insignificant depressing. I find it uplifting.”

If he has a joke that falls flat, that’s of miniscule importance in the grand scheme of things. So tell the joke and don’t worry about the outcome.

Photo by NASA

Russell used this same technique to get over his debilitating fear of public speaking. At one point, he wished he would break a leg before a public speaking engagement, so he didn’t have to go through with it.

Then he convinced himself that whether he spoke well or spoke poorly, “the universe would remain much the same in either case.” It’s like picturing your audience in their underwear on steroids.

“I found that the less I cared, the less badly I spoke, and gradually the nervous strain diminished almost to a vanishing point.”

Of course, it’s not helpful to tell someone with anxiety, just don’t worry about it! That’s likely to make matters worse. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes training your brain over time.

Ryan Holiday, author of The Daily Stoic, offers advice for how to “escape the crush of circumstances,” as Marcus Aurelius put it in Meditations.

On tough days we might say, “My work is overwhelming,” or “My boss is really frustrating.” If only we could understand that this is impossible. Someone can’t frustrate you, work can’t overwhelm you — these are external objects, and they have no access to your mind. Those emotions you feel, as real as they are, come from the inside, not the outside.

At the same time, Holiday advises to listen to why you’re fatigued. Even after he stops caring, Peter ultimately (spoiler alert) quits his office job for a simpler life in construction.

“Why are you subjecting yourself to this?” Holiday asks:

Is this really the environment you were made for? To be provoked by nasty emails and an endless parade of workplace problems? Our adrenal glands can handle only so much before they become exhausted. Shouldn’t you preserve them for life-and-death situations?
So yes, use Stoicism to manage these difficulties. But don’t forget to ask: Is this really the life I want? Every time you get upset, a little bit of life leaves the body. Are these really the things on which you want to spend that priceless resource? Don’t be afraid to make a change — a big one.

Envy

The 10 Commandments warned against coveting anything your neighbor owned. It’s about protecting against envy for anything in your immediate vicinity.

Russell believed that envy was increasing because we don’t just know about our neighbors’ fortune, through movies, the press and education we know the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

That was long before social media.

Now we have opportunity to experience FOMO, jealousy and unflattering comparisons whenever we open an app.

Modern civilization has made the human heart “more prone to hatred than friendship,” Russell writes.

Is that true today? Data shows that we might be recoiling and retreating from each other. Researcher danah boyd outlined examples and reasons why America is self-segregating, and that includes social media:

Ironically, in a world in which we have countless tools to connect, we are also watching fragmentation, polarization, and de-diversification happen en masse. The American public is self-segregating, and this is tearing at the social fabric of the country.
Many in the tech world imagined that the Internet would connect people in unprecedented ways, allow for divisions to be bridged and wounds to heal. It was the kumbaya dream. Today, those same dreamers find it quite unsettling to watch as the tools that were designed to bring people together are used by people to magnify divisions and undermine social solidarity. These tools were built in a bubble, and that bubble has burst.

In a personal example, my friend Joseph Simmons, SJ, wrote about his Facebook experience, to which we can all relate:

An example: sometimes I’m bored when I’m alone. I’ll plunk down after a long day at school wanting only to decompress by putzing around on Facebook. I’m just hoping to see what friends are up to, to stay connected. As it turns out, though, most of us only post pictures or status updates when something funny, exciting, or otherwise significant is going on in our lives. And here I am, alone and bored in front of a computer screen. And then I’m comparing the fun I see in someone else’s life:
Smiles!
Festivity with friends!
Interesting places!
with my current status:
Bored.
Sitting alone.
Tired in my old room.
It’s then that the specter of loneliness rises like a bubbling tar ball from the pit my stomach and sticks in my throat. What may have been a productive, colorful day has now lost its luster, grown gray in comparison to the social bounty I see from a distance.

The stakes a higher than simply feeling a pang of jealousy when you see a vacation photo on Instagram or feeling disconnected when you’re reacting to a status update. As Russell notes, envy can drive a wedge between factions of society.

“Through the movies they think they know how the rich live, through the newspapers they know much of the wickedness of foreign nations, through propaganda they know of the nefarious practices of all whose skin has a pigmentation different from their own,” Russell writes.

This separation from others has the consequences for tearing at the fabric of society:

If there is to be less envy, means must be found for remedying this state of affairs, and if no such means are found our civilization is in danger of going down to destruction in an orgy of hatred.

That doesn’t sound like hyperbole after the turmoil, anger and hatred of the past few years. To pick just one tweet example seemingly at random:

Freud might have something to say about this kind of envy

The only way out, Russell says, is to transcend ourselves and our ego and enlarge our hearts, as we have enlarged our minds.

Guilt and shame

Russell and his wife leading an anti-nuclear march in 1961, when he was arrested.

Russell uses the phrase “sense of sin” to talk about the feeling of doing something wrong, of not living up to a moral code.

Russell spends most of this chapter advocating for throwing off the “superstitions of their childhood,” which he calls “simply silly” and “infantile.” A morality instilled in childhood has no basis in adult rationality, he says.

The traditional morality of sin, he argues, is arbitrarily obsessed with traditions like swearing, smoking or sex. Meanwhile, the “real moral dangers” of adulthood thrive unfettered, which he counted as shady business practices, harshness and cruelty to colleagues and family, and “ferocity in political conflicts.” Sound familiar in any of our recent headlines?

[Side note: Russell credited smoking for saving his life when he survived a plane crash. The people who were rescued were in the smoking part of the plane. This is one time when smoking didn’t kill.]

Russell’s ideas — and his personal life — were countercultural for his time. He divorced his first wife after he said he realized he didn’t love her, he was jailed for opposing World War I, and he was fired from Trinity College at Cambridge for being both an atheist and a pacifist.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he sent President Kennedy a telegram that read: YOUR ACTION DESPERATE. THREAT TO HUMAN SURVIVAL. NO CONCEIVABLE JUSTIFICATION. CIVILIZED MAN CONDEMNS IT.WE WILL NOT HAVE MASS MURDER. ULTIMATUM MEANS WAR… END THIS MADNESS.

Aging didn’t change him, either. At the age of 89, Russell was jailed for a week for “breach of peace” after taking part in an anti-nuclear demonstration. The magistrate offered to exempt him from jail if he pledged himself to “good behavior.” Russell replied: “No, I won’t.”

Clearly, Russell had a strong moral code he wasn’t afraid to express, even or especially if it opposed powerful institutions or majority opinions of the time. He took his own advice, not someone else’s.

“I am not suggesting that a man should be destitute of morality,” he writes. “I am only suggesting he should be destitute of superstitious morality, which is a very different thing.”

But even he admits that even if you have a deep personal moral code, a nagging sense of sin can creep in. Am I really doing the right thing? Someone’s actions and subconscious can be “engaged in perpetual battle.”

It’s those times of questioning your conscience when he said you should remind yourself what you really believe. “This is a question of reasoning with himself in those moments in which he is tempted to become infantile,” he writes.

This phrase “sense of sin” feels somewhat dated and Victorian, which makes sense because Russell has roots in that era’s instruction. If you’re religious you may still use that terminology. But today many people might use the terms guilt and shame as a synonym.

And the sense of sin, guilt and shame are all on the upswing, at least according to historical analysis of terminology in books up to 2008. Even the term sin, which has been on a sharp historical decline, has been making a comeback in recent years.

Everyone today — religious or not — has endless opportunity to feel guilt and shame.

There’s fat shaming and skinny shaming.

Slut shaming and public shaming.

There’s guilt for working too many hours, and guilt for not working enough hours.

There’s guilt and shame for giving your kids not enough attention, or for being a helicopter parent.

There’s no shortage of opportunities to feel like you’re not living up to the standards of society, your parents, peers on social media, your bosses or direct reports, your students or your teachers, the Kardashians or whatever.

To all this, Russell says, YOU DO YOU.

No one can live your life for you but you.

Looking back at his life, he wrote “Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday.” For this, he reaffirmed his personal moral code:

“I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle; to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken.”

This displays the opposite of guilt and shame: Pride.

Persecution mania

What Russell calls “persecution mania” is the result of self-absorption and a big ego. It can take many forms of beliefs:

People aren’t thanking me enough!
People are gossipping about me!
People don’t realize how selflessly I’m helping them!
People don’t appreciate my true talents and genius!
You’ve had to deal with fake news since day 1!

(Sorry, I had to go there.)

Russell’s advice, as usual, is to get over yourself. This may come as a shock, but you’re not the center of the universe. Other people simply aren’t going to take as much interest in you as you do.

As you’re consumed with your problems, others are consumed with their own problems.

It might be true that others are gossipping about you behind your back. To this Russell says, so what?

Do you gossip and grouse about others? Do you see the flaws in others, especially those of your friends? Of course you do! You’re human.

Then doesn’t it make sense that others might feel the same about you? That you’re not flawless? That others may gossip or grouse about your shortcomings? Of course they do! They’re human.

Russell says not to view this as some sort of grand conspiracy against you. Just accept it as the price of living in an interconnected tribal society of flawed individuals with their own egos, and get over it. It’s not about you.

But what do you do if others don’t recognize that you’re, let’s say, a very smart and mentally stable genius? Do you show them the light?

“There is a test which you may apply to yourself if you suspect that you are a genius while your friends suspect that you are not,” Russel writes.

The test is this: Do you work for the applause and the approval of others? Or do you do what you do because you feel compelled by an inner “urgent compulsion” to carry out a mission or expression?

And if you’re doing what we do primarily for the applause and approval, face up to it.

“No satisfaction based upon self-deception is solid,” Russell writes. “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.”

This advice isn’t just for egomaniacs. It’s for all of us to remember that we’re simply not as important as we think. To go back to his previous advice, we should know our place in the universe.

Fear of public opinion

Living in a pluralistic society means that we’re free to believe what we want to believe. We can have our own tastes, ideas, favorite TV shows and personalized Spotify playlists.

But that also means that we’re surrounded by people who also have their own tastes, ideas, favorite TV shows and personalized Spotify playlists.

We think of the death of the monoculture or the mainstream as starting with the rise of the Internet, which created an infinite number of niches.

Technology is rewriting the rules of individual identities and how people relate to each other. The old concept of communities bonded together by religion, ethnicity or location is being replaced with groups brought together by personal taste and shared interests.

“The social universe is expanding at an accelerating rate,” said Robert Kozinets, a former Associate Professor of Marketing at UW-Madison who now teaches at USC Annenberg at University of Southern California — Marshall School of Business. “The foundation of a community is really changing.”

But Russell saw that starting long ago, with the Renaissance and the Reformation. These movements created a splintering of society.

For Russell, these differences within the larger society were a source of possible judgement and isolation. “This is especially true in America because of the vastness of the country,” he writes.

If you think believe one thing and everyone around you believes something different, that doesn’t feel good. You may hide your true beliefs or fear the tyranny of public opinion.

You may not feel like you fit in if you don’t go to church, if you don’t read the right books, if you don’t wear the right clothes.

Russell’s advice in this case, especially to young people, is to go find your tribe. Choose a career with like-minded people that nurture your ideas and your talents, even if that means giving up income or not following the path your parents want for you.

But he also contracts himself a bit. After saying you should surround yourself with “congenial champions,” he provides a different set of advice:

You know what? Screw the haters.

That’s what he says in so many words.

“To be genuinely indifferent to (public opinion) 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,” he writes.

There is some natural tension in this advice. We all feel the need to both stand out and to blend in. And he’s saying it’s OK to be both.

He says you shouldn’t be “intentionally eccentric” for the sake of being different, which he calls “as uninteresting as being conventional.” Be natural, is how he put it.

You shouldn’t be afraid to be you.


Part II: 7 Causes of Happiness

Thanks to Scott Berkun for recommending this book in his newsletter!