Thrice Removed
Published in

Thrice Removed

Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness

Some old-school self-help!

Some Russell quotations have been floating around lately, so I read The Conquest of Happiness, first published in 1930, and, boy, did I need this right now! The main ideas and some bits I liked are below by chapter. The book is really just a mix of Stoicism and Epicureanism, so you could just read that instead, but they’re not nearly as palatable. This summary is really long, but not nearly as long as the book!

Part I: Causes of Unhappiness

1: What Makes People Unhappy?

This chapter has some racist bit, but I imagine he was still more progressive than most at the time. We won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater at any rate. He raises his thesis here: we can only be happy by being prudent with desires and by focusing outward.

It adds credence to the idea — which seemed a much more recent problem, but apparently not — that anxiety is increasing because we’ve become obsessed with our own identity formation.

So, we’ve got maybe Leslie Knope (sorry if you love her), the Mean Girls / asshole guys movie tropes, and, of course, Trump. Then Russell gets a bit Freudian (which he does here and there throughout) in searching for a cause for these three ailments: It’s all because of something lacking in childhood, and escapism is the only other option.

2: Byronic Unhappiness

It appears that, at the time, the intellectual crowds came to the conclusion that misery was a byproduct of brilliance. But Russell disagrees with a line almost lifted from Epicurus.

But then he touched on something discussed more and more now: the concern with getting things too easily in life:

He cautions against relationships, parental or otherwise, that protect self-esteem to the point of thwarting personal growth:

A thread seen throughout is the necessity of connection with others, and he criticizes the Stoics and Christians for implying that interpersonal communion isn’t of the highest value in life:

3: Competition

Greed destroys happiness. People complain about their daily grind, but it’s not that difficult to survive. What’s difficult is getting enough to impress everyone around us.

And this is because of the value system taught to us in school — a shift away from the arts for pleasure and towards knowledge of art as a commodity:

The result is that we have greater leisure time, but we’ve lost the skill to use it wisely. We’re just passively entertained rather than passionately enticed by images and ideas.

4: Boredom and Excitement

Boredom is a great motivator, but it can lead towards good or evil — like the witch-hunts as a “sport by which winter evenings could be enlivened.” When we’re bored, we may be more likely to invent a conflict just to entertain ourselves.

People seek excitement in a variety of ways. The type of excitement is less important than the quantity. We need periods of restraint or whatever excites us will lose its thrill, and we’ll need more and more to enjoy a simple day.

And then we’re back to blaming upbringing. I can only imagine how disappointed he’d be with how constantly children are passively entertained today!

And then he throws in a little on the hollowness of sex as entertainment:

5: Fatigue

Russell cautions against too much hard labour. This is the guy who advocated for the 4-day work week.

Other fatiguing stimuli like constant noise, presence of strangers, or fear of losing our jobs or family, all create a society full of nervous wrecks. We become “so accustomed to anxiety that he cannot shake off the habit of it when the need for it is past.” But we can counter this with a good attitude.

He used stoic practices (now we’d call it CBT) when he was so terrified of giving a speech that he hoped to break a leg instead:

We have to shift our values to embrace and applaud courage again to face our difficulties:

6: Envy

Envy is the basis of democracy. We want equality of all so we don’t have to do as much work as another. This is the crabs-in-a-bucket phenomenon. I don’t want to work as much as other so it’s easier to drag them down to my level than to do the work it would take to reach their heights.

It’s in comparing ourselves to others that we develop a sense of happiness-destroying envy. Again, it all starts in childhood:

But this is an important one not just for our own happiness, but for the health of society in general. His claims a prescient warning now that we have knowledge and access to people worldwide:

7: The Sense of Sin

Harmless pleasures, like sex, have to be divorced from the idea of sin. Even though we might think we’ve succeeded at this, there’s still a measure of truth in this passage:

And, of course, people who carry around guilt and shame for something completely harmless, have a difficult time finding happiness in life. His views are very similar to Freud’s writing (published the same year):

8: Persecution Mania

Something else that keeps people from happiness is a concern with people conspiring against them.

And he gets at a that selfish type of giving that rarely gets the expected rewards, and he give us four maxims to live by to avoid this misery trap:

9: Fear of Public Opinion

We all want to be liked, but some people are shunned by people for minor social clumsiness, which affects their happiness. With the right attitude, bucking convention can be accepted, but if you too overtly hope for approval, it will be lost.

Picking the right career path can help people fit with the best group of people.

And generally, we should try to just ignore public opinion on trifling matters:

Part II: Causes of Happiness

10: Is Happiness Still Possible?

Like many philosophers before, Russell delineates happiness that’s plain and simple (‘vulgar’ according to Aristotle) from happiness that can only be experienced by the educated. He writes about his gardener’s mission to kill rabbits, and how “the fount of joy is inexhaustible, and it is ‘they rabbits’ that supply it.”

We’re happy when we use our skills and knowledge to do something important to ourselves and others. “Pleasures of achievement demand difficulties such that beforehand success seems doubtful although in the end it is usually achieved.” When we think we can do things, but fail, it leads to misery, so we are happier the more we underestimate our abilities. And because we’re happier when others understand and appreciate our work, scientists tend to be happier than artists. Except, today, I’m not sure climate scientists are a relatively happy lot.

We need to find a way to impress others. He writes of a man without legs who’s happy because he’s the expert on rose blight. And, like Marx, he recognizes the problem with industrialization leading to alienation from our work. We can be happy crafting tables, but not attaching the same table leg 100 times a day in a factory. We need a sense of accomplishment to be happy.

He also adds here the importance of a strong belief or interest in something — a faith in God or, just as good, in a baseball team. A friendly interest in people without expectation — without hope of having power over them or being admired by them — is also key.

11: Zest

The person who relishes a meal and company, regardless flaws of either, is said to have ‘zest’:

We need health, basic income, and social duties fulfilled before obsessing over a singular pleasure. It’s okay if we have one obsession if it’s socially based (like being a soldier or inventing something useful — even if we never succeed at it). But we can’t be happy if our pleasures merely satisfy ourselves.

12: Affection

A lack of zest is because we feel unloved. Feeling loved promotes zest more than anything else. Then he takes a stab at explaining why people are unloved. It’s either due to being “such a dreadful person that no one could possibly love him,” or “a lack of self-confidence due to early misfortune” in which case they may either make desperate efforts to get attention, seek revenge on the world, or “sink into timid despair relieved only by occasional gleams of envy and malice.”

“General self-confidence towards life comes more than anything else from being accustomed to receive as much of the right sort of affection as one has need for.” But it’s not just affection that matters, but admiration. And, once again, the primary caregiver is key:

When we’re needy or desperate, we’ll love someone without looking at their real value; we’ll love the horrid as easily as the honourable. So we have to be careful that we’re in the right place to love another or else we could end up with someone harmful to us:

But he also points out that people are slow to admire or state admiration for others, which “tends to produce timidity and anger against mankind, since many people miss throughout life what is really a fundamental need.” So we should really honestly compliment one another more! And then another bit about sex:

13: The Family

Um… this chapter might be one to skip. He blames this failure on the bad quality of domestic services, such that intelligent women have to lower themselves to housekeeping. Chores make a woman wearisome to her husband and a nuisance to their kids. So, yup, there’s that. And yet, it’s still somehow a little relevant:

He also blames the migration to cities where there’s no room for kids to play or for parents to escape their noise. And then there’s that lack of slavery because of democracy, which he hastens to add is a good thing, it’s just… “It is no use to blink at the fact that, while this transition is in progress it makes the world uncomfortable.”

But his discussion of parenting isn’t too dissimilar from today’s concerns:

He’s clear that equitable democracy should reign over any dictatorship, but he also understands the benefits of having total control. But he’s managed to make this new-fangled system work:

Parents and kids can enjoy each other, but “this requires, as do all those equal relationships at which the modern world aims, a certain delicacy and tenderness, a certain reverence for another personality, which are by no means encouraged by the pugnacity of ordinary life.”

And back to women’s rights:

14: Work

It prevents boredom, and “makes holidays much more delicious when they come.” It gives us a chance of success and reputation, a “continuity of purpose.” We can leave behind something of our own making. But the greatest cause of unhappiness among intellectuals is that, “so many of them, especially those whose skill is literary, find no opportunity for the independent exercise of their talents, but have to hire themselves out to rich corporations directed by Philistines, who insist upon their producing what they themselves regard as pernicious nonsense.” They essentially prostitute their skills for a living.

And yet, “Consistent purpose is not enough to make life happy, but it is an almost indispensable condition of a happy life. And consistent purpose embodies itself mainly in work.”

15: Impersonal interests

We need minor, impractical interests to fill our leisure time. Here he’s closer to Jung than Freud in Jung’s talk of the importance of purposeless activity [Jung quotes Schiller when he says, “Man is completely human only when he is at play”]. Russell says,

As a sign of the times, he sees women and men as distinctly different:

Impersonal interests help maintain a sense of proportion; it’s easy to get so absorbed “that we forget how small a part this is of the total of human activity.” This helps guard against a fanatical temperament. Nothing’s better for that than “a large conception of the life of man and his place in the universe.” He sees education as key to changing this:

He raises Spinoza when he says this, and Plato’s cave isn’t far behind either:

In times of difficulty, it’s most beneficial to have outside interests: “when in spite of anxiety there is nothing to be done at the moment, one man will play chess….the man who does nothing to distract his mine and allows his trouble to acquire a complete empire over him is acting unwisely and making himself less fit to cope with his troubles….To be defeated by one loss or even by several is not something to be admired as a proof of sensibility, but something to be deplored as a failure in vitality.”

16: Effort and Resignation

We need to carefully balance effort and resignation, learning when to charge and when to have restraint. This was said by many before him. Because we can suffer great loss in a moment, “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.” Inwardly we have to develop necessary resignation when change is beyond our control, and outwardly we need to make an effort at work, finding a mate, and rearing children.

If there’s too much resignation to things, it leads to a high infant mortality, little progress in medicine, sanitation, etc. We need some effort for power too — over land, or mastery over books. Like Epictetus, we need to resign ourselves to things that are unavoidable:

“Resignation is of two sorts, one rooted in despair, the other in unconquerable hope. The first is bad; the second is good.” Despair leads to abandoning serious activity, and one becomes useless; but if an action is based on hope that’s large and impersonal, if we take on something so huge it can’t lead to success, it’s not the same kind of defeat. Therefore, grander plans that benefit society are always a better object of our attention. Those who can’t ever resign themselves are in trouble:

We need to always keep perspective on our own small part in the history of the cosmos: “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.”

17: The Happy Man

Epicurus though whether or not we’re happy has to do mainly with whether or not we wish to be so Russell agrees:

And then he turns to some Stoic exercises:

He cautions against striving for self-denial rather than focusing on varied outward interests:

The grand finale:



Books, films, and lectures summarized with citations, links, and some commentary. Get the main idea before you read or in order to find that perfect, sourced, quotation.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store