Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness has immediately become my #1 favorite self-help book (not that there are a lot of contenders so far, but…). For anybody struggling with depression or an existential crisis, this is literally the best source of inspiration and practical advice. Most people try to defer the conversation or give platitudes when faced with existential questions, so it’s so nice to see an author try to answer them so directly. I know Bertrand Russell because I’ve been slowly chipping away at A History of Western Philosophy (I’m at about 400/800 pages right now – I will review it eventually). I really enjoy Russell’s keen logic and dry humor, so when I saw someone suggesting this in a forum as a book that would change your life, I decided to give it a try, and boy, was I impressed. I would say this is recommended reading for just about everybody, but lit/arts/humanities majors especially since we tend to be overly introspective.
The book is divided into two parts: Causes of Unhappiness and Causes of Happiness. Russell starts by explaining the causes of unhappiness because they are like locks or weights on one’s psyche; it’s hard to rise to the heights of happiness with sources of unhappiness dragging you down. The main one is disengagement from nature, other people, or everything outside of yourself. Russell makes the case that happiness is something you find by interacting with the outside world, not through meditation or introspection. He doesn’t advocate destroying the ego like many mystics do, but he says that being overly concerned with the self is the most common modern disease.
The other causes of unhappiness are caused by an imbalance of some kind, like between boredom and excitement or effort and resignation. (some of the quotes I’ve added at the end will go over that in finer detail)
The causes of happiness are: finding work that develops a skill and does something constructive, meeting small goals, being physically active, and expressing and receiving affection.
I really don’t know how to say what he said better than to give you his own words, so I’ve collected a bunch of my favorite quotes from each chapter. Since the book is in public domain now, I can type up long excerpts, and if you want, you can read the book for free online or buy it via Amazon. Sorry to do so many, but they’re all so good! >n<
Ch 1 – What Makes People Unhappy?
“At the age of five, I reflected that, if I should live to be seventy, I had only endured, so far, a fourteenth part of my whole life, and I felt the long-spread-out boredom ahead of me to be almost unendurable. 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 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 a 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 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 with disgust with self. And every external interest inspires some activity which, so long as the interest remains alive, is a complete preventative of ennui. Interest in oneself, on the contrary, leads to no activity of a progressive kind. It may lead to the keeping of a diary, to getting psychoanalyzed, or perhaps to becoming a monk. But the monk will not be happy until the routine of the monastery has made him forget his own soul.”
“A narcissist, for example, inspired by the homage paid to great painters, may become an art student; but, as painting is for him a mere means to an end, the technique never becomes interesting, and no subject can be seen except in relation to self.”
“The unhappy man is one who, having been deprived in youth of some normal satisfaction, has come to value this one kind of satisfaction more than any other, and has therefore given to his life a one-sided direction”
“A man may feel so completely thwarted that he seeks no form of satisfaction, but only distraction and oblivion. He then becomes a devotee of “pleasure.” That is to say, he seeks to make life bearable by becoming less alive. Drunkenness, for example, is temporary suicide: the happiness that it brings is merely negative, a momentary cessation of unhappiness.”
“Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact.”
Ch 2 – Byronic Unhappiness
On Existential Ennui
“In an argument of this sort we must distinguish between a mood and its intellectual expression. There is no arguing with a mood; it can be changed by some fortunate event, or by a change in our bodily condition, but it cannot be changed by argument. I have frequently experienced myself the mood in which I felt that all is vanity; I have emerged from it not by means of any philosophy, but owing to some imperative necessity of action… A rich man may, and often does, feel that all is vanity, but if he should happen to lose his money, he would feel that his next meal was by no means vanity. The feeling is one born of a too easy satisfaction of natural needs. The human animal, like others, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle for life, and when by means of great wealth homo sapiens can gratify all his whims without effort, the mere absence of effort from his life removes an essential ingredient of happiness. The man who acquires easily things for which he feels only a very moderate desire concludes that the attainment of desire does not bring happiness. If he is of a philosophic disposition, he concludes that human life is essentially wretched, since the man who has all he wants is still unhappy.”
On Finding Something to Write About
“To all the talented young men who wander about feeling that there is nothing in the world for them to do, I should say: “Give up trying to write, and, instead, try not to write. Go out into the world; become a pirate, a kind in Borneo, a laborer in Soviet Russia; give yourself an existence in which the satisfaction of elementary physical needs will occupy almost all your energies.” I do not recommend this course of action to every one but only to those who suffer from the disease which Mr. Krutch diagnoses. I believe that after some years of such an existence, the ex-intellectual will find that in spite of his efforts he can no longer refrain from writing, and when this time comes his writing will not seem to him futile.”
Ch 3 – Competition
“What people mean, therefore, by the struggle for life is really the struggle for success. What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbors.”
Portrait of the Over-Invested Businessman
“The working life of this man has the psychology of a hundred-yard race, but as the race upon which he is engaged is one whose only goal is the grave, the concentration, which is appropriate enough for a hundred yards, becomes in the end somewhat excessive. What does he know about his children? On week-days he is at the office; on Sundays he is at the golf links. What does he know of his wife? When he leaves her in the morning, she is asleep. Throughout the evening he and she are engaged in social duties which prevent intimate conversation. He has probably no men friends who are important to him, although he has a number with whom he affects a geniality that he wishes he felt. Of springtime and harvest he knows only as they affect the market; Europe he has probably seen, but with eyes of utter boredom. Books seem to him futile, and music high-brow. Year by year he grows more lonely; his attention grows more concentrated, and his life outside business more desiccated. I have seen this type of man in later middle life, in Europe, with his wife and daughters. Evidently they had persuaded the poor fellow that it was time he took a holiday, and gave his girls a chance to do the Old World. The mother and daughters in ecstasy surround him and call his attention to each new item that strikes them as characteristic. Paterfamilias, utterly weary, utterly bored, is wondering what they are doing in the office at this moment, or what is happening in the baseball world. His womenkind, in the end, give him up, and conclude that males are Philistines. It never dawns upon them that he is a victim to their greed; nor, indeed, is this quite the truth, any more than suttee [the Indian practice of widows self-immolating after the deaths of their husbands] is quite what it appeared to a European onlooker. Probably in nine cases out of ten the widow was a willing victim, prepared to be burnt for the sake of glory and because religion so ordained. The business man’s religion and glory demand that he should make much money; therefore, like the Hindu widow, he suffers the torment gladly.”
“Money made is the accepted measure of brains.”
On Book Clubs
“There are two motives for reading a book: one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.
Ch 4 – Boredom and Excitement
This is so true in our age of smartphones and social media:
“Too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty.”
In this chapter, Russell talks about two kinds of boredom: fructifying and stultifying. Fructifying boredom comes from not being drunk or distracted. It comes from physical and intellectual exercise, and stultifying boredom is the kind that results when one flits from shallow stimulus to the next.
Ch 5 – Fatigue
Russell says that most nervous fatigue is caused by worry, and worry is caused by thinking about important or complex topics at the wrong times (when you can’t do anything about it). It also helps to realize the temporality and insignificance of our worries in the grand scheme of the universe.
“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 thought 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.”
“When some misfortune threatens, consider seriously and deliberately what is the very worst that could possibly happen. Having looked this possible misfortune in the face, give yourself sound reasons for thinking that after all it would be no such very terrible disaster. Such reasons always exist, since at the worst nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance.”
“Now every kind of fear grows worse by not being looked at. The effort of turning away one’s thoughts is a tribute to the horribleness of the specter from which one is averting one’s gaze; the proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar. In the end familiarity will blunt its terrors; the whole subject will become boring, and our thoughts will turn away from it, not, as formerly, by an effort of will, but through mere lack of interest in the topic.”
Ch 6 – Envy
Sin and Self-Righteousness
“A lofty morality has the same purpose; those who have a chance to sin against it are envied, and it is considered virtuous to punish them for their sins. This particular form of virtue is certainly its own reward.”
The Cure to Envy
“There is in human nature a compensating passion, namely, that of admiration. Whoever wishes to increase human happiness must wish to increase admiration and to diminish envy.”
“Unnecessary modesty has a great deal to do with envy. Modesty is considered a virtue, but for my part I am very doubtful whether, in its more extreme forms, it deserves to be so regarded. Modest people need a great deal of reassuring and often do not dare to attempt tasks which they are quite capable of performing. Modest people believe themselves to be outshone by those with whom they habitually associate. They are therefore particularly prone to envy, and to unhappiness and ill will.”
Social Justice, Democracy, and Envy
“While it is true that envy is the chief motive force leading to justice as between different classes, different nations, and different sexes, it is at the same time true that the kind of justice to be expected as a result of envy is likely to be the worst possible kind; namely, that which consists rather in diminishing the pleasures of the fortunate than increasing the pleasures of the unfortunate.”
Instinct and Happiness
“But by far the most important thing is to secure a life which is satisfying to instinct. Much envy that seems professional really has a sexual source. A man who is happy in his marriage and his children is not likely to feel much envy of other men because of their greater wealth or success, so long as he has enough to bring up his children in what he feels to be the right way.”
Ch 7 – The Sense of Sin
Russell talks about how men should shake off the taboos they learned from their mothers by carefully examining the beliefs that cause them guilt, and, if the beliefs are not rational, to discard them.
“The rational man will regard his own undesirable acts, as he regards those of others, as acts produced by certain circumstances”
“As a matter of fact, the sense of sin, so far from being a cause of a good life, is quite the reverse. It makes a man unhappy and it makes him feel inferior… Feeling inferior, he will have a grudge against those who seem superior. He will find admiration difficult and envy easy. He will become a generally disagreeable person and will find himself more and more solitary. An expansive and generous attitude towards other people not only gives happiness to others, but is an immense source of happiness to its possessor, since it causes him to be generally liked. It is an outcome of poise and self-reliance, it demands what may be called mental integration, by which I mean that the various layers of a man’s nature, conscious, subconscious, and unconscious, work together harmoniously and are not engaged in perpetual battle.”
“No man need fear that by making himself rational he will make his life dull. On the contrary, since rationality consists in the main of internal harmony, the man who achieves it is freer in his contemplation of the world and in the use of his energies to achieve external purposes than is the man who is perpetually hampered by inward conflicts. Nothing is so dull as to be encased in self, nothing so exhilarating as to have attention and energy directed outwards.”
Ch 8 – Persecution Mania
“Don’t imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any desire to persecute you.”
Ch 9 – Fear of Public Opinion
Russell gives advice to nerds and mavericks living in places where there are few or none like themselves.
“Gradually it may become possible to acquire the position of licensed lunatic, to whom things are permitted which in another man would be thought unforgivable. This is largely a matter of a certain kind of good nature and friendliness. Conventional people are roused to fury by departures from convention, largely because they regard such departures as a criticism of themselves. They will pardon much unconventionality in a man who has enough jollity and friendliness to make it clear, even to the stupidest, that he is not engaged in criticizing them.”
“Young people who find themselves out of harmony with their surroundings should endeavor in the choice of a profession to select some career which will give them a chance of congenial companionship, even if this should entail a loss of income.”
“This 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.”
PT 2 – Causes of Happiness
Ch 10 – Is Happiness Still Possible?
He says the happiness that his gardener gets from chasing off rabbits is the same as the kind that a scientist gets from curing yellow fever: it’s based on “vigor, a sufficiency of work, and the overcoming of not insuperable obstacles”.
Why Scientists are Happier
“Of the more highly educated sections of the community, the happiest in the present day are the men of science. Many of the most eminent of them are emotionally simple, and obtain from their work a satisfaction so profound that they can derive pleasure from eating, and even marrying. Artists and literary men consider it de rigueur to be unhappy in their marriages but men of science quite frequently remain capable of old-fashioned domestic bliss. The reason of this is that the higher parts of their intelligence are wholly absorbed by their work and are not allowed to intrude into regions where they have no functions to perform. In their work they are happy because in the modern world science is progressive and powerful, and because its importance is not doubted either by themselves or by laymen. They have therefore no necessity for complex emotions, since the simpler emotions meet with no obstacles.”
Why Literature Isn’t as Appreciated
“When the public cannot understand a picture or poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient.” (one inconsistency – he says the happy person is indifferent to public opinion, but that men of art are less happy because they are not venerated enough? Maybe the solution is that arts isn’t really doing anything tangible, and that’s why men of arts are unhappy?)
One inconsistency – he says the happy person is indifferent to public opinion, but that men of art are less happy because they are not venerated enough? Maybe the solution is that arts isn’t really doing anything tangible, and that’s why men of arts are unhappy?
“Cynicism such as one finds very frequently among the most highly educated young men and women of the West results from the combination of comfort with powerlessness. Powerlessness makes people feel that nothing is worth doing, and comfort makes the painfulness of this feeling just endurable.”
Ch 11 – Zest
On the False “Deepness” of Depression
“From the height of their disillusionment they [the Byronics, invalids, and epicures in his life-as-food metaphor] look down upon those whom they despise as simple souls. For my part, I have no sympathy with this outlook. All disenchantment is to me a malady, which, it is true, certain circumstances may render inevitable, but which none the less, when it occurs, is to be cured as soon as possible, not to be regarded as a higher form of wisdom. Suppose one man likes strawberries and another does not; in what respect is the latter superior?”
“We are all prone to the malady of the introvert, who, with the manifold spectacle of the world spread out before him, turns away and gazes only upon the emptiness within. But let us not imagine that there is anything grand about the introvert’s unhappiness.”
“The mind is a strange machine which can combine the materials offered to it in the most astonishing ways, but without materials from the external world it is powerless.”
“The ancients, as every one knows, regarded moderation as one of the essential virtues. Under the influence of Romanticism and the French Revolution this view was abandoned by many, and overmastering passions were admired, even if, like those of Byron’s heroes, they were of a destructive and antisocial kind. The ancients, however, were clearly in the right. In the good life there must be a balance between different activities, and no one of them must be carried so far as to make the others impossible.”
Some Repression is Necessary
“At every moment of life the civilized man is hedged about by restrictions of impulse: if he happens to feel cheerful he must not sing or dance in the street, while if he happens to feel sad he must not sit on the pavement and weep, for fear of obstructing pedestrian traffic. In youth his liberty is restricted at school, in adult life it is restricted throughout his working hours. All this makes zest more difficult to retain, for the continual restraint tends to produce weariness and boredom. Nevertheless, a civilized society is impossible without a very considerable degree of restraint upon spontaneous impulse, since spontaneous impulse will only produce the simplest forms of social cooperation, not those highly complex forms which modern economic organization demands. In order to rise above these obstacles to zest a man needs health and superabundant energy, or else, if he has that good fortune, work that he finds interesting on its own account.”
Women and Zest
“In women, less nowadays than formerly but still to a very large extent, zest has been greatly diminished by a mistaken conception of respectability. It was thought undesirable that women should take an obvious interest in men, or that they should display too much vivacity in public. In learning not to be interested in men they learned very frequently to be interested in nothing, or at any rate in nothing except a certain kind of correct behavior.”
Ch 12 – Affection
Fear as a Remnant of Parental Fear
“The affection given must be itself robust rather than timid, desiring excellence even more than safety on the part of its object, though of course by no means indifferent to safety. The timid mother or nurse, who is perpetually warning children against disasters that may occur, who thinks that every dog will bite and that every cow is a bull, may produce in them a timidity equal to her own, and may cause them to feel that they are never safe except in her immediate neighborhood. To the unduly possessive mother this feeling on the part of a child may be agreeable, she may desire his dependence upon herself more than his capacity to cope with the world. In that case her child is probably worse off than he would be if he were not loved at all.”
Ch 13 – The Family
Portrait of the Over-devoted Home-Maker
“Weighed down by a mass of trivial detail, she [the mother] is fortunate indeed if she does not soon lose all her charm and three-quarters of her intelligence. Too often through the mere performance of necessary duties such women become wearisome to their husbands and a nuisance to their children. When the evening comes and her husband returns from his work, the woman who talks about her daytime troubles is a bore, and the woman who does not is absent-minded. In relation to her children, the sacrifices that she has made in order to have them are so present to her mind that she is almost sure to demand more reward than it is desirable to expect, while the constant habit of attending to trivial details will have made her fussy and small-minded. This is the most pernicious of all the injustices that she has to suffer: that in consequence of doing her duty by her family she has lost their affection, whereas if she had neglected them and remained gay and charming, they would probably have loved her.”
Why Have Children?
“Reverting to the professional women we were considering a moment ago, it is clear that the urge to have children must be very powerful, for otherwise none of them would make the sacrifices required in order to satisfy it. For my own part, speaking personally, I have found the happiness of parenthood greater than any other that I have experienced. I believe that when circumstances lead men or women to forgo this happiness, a very deep need remains ungratified, and that this produces a dissatisfaction and listlessness of which the cause may remain quite unknown. To be happy in the world, especially when youth is past, it is necessary to feel oneself not merely an isolated individual whose day will soon be over, but part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future… A man who is capable of some great and remarkable achievement which sets its stamp upon future ages may gratify this feeling through his work, but for men and women who have no exceptional gifts, the only way to do so is through children.”
“The new creature is helpless and there is an impulse to supply its needs, an impulse which gratifies not only the parent’s love towards the child, but also the parent’s desire for power. So long as the infant is felt to be helpless, the affection which is bestowed upon it does not feel unselfish, since it is in the nature of protection to a vulnerable portion of oneself. But from a very early age there comes to be a conflict between love of parental power and desire for the child’s good, for, while power over the child is to a certain extent decreed by the nature of things, it is nevertheless desirable that the child should learn to be independent in as many ways as possible, which is unpleasant to the power impulse in a parent.”
“The mother who is conventionally called self-sacrificing is, in a great majority of cases, exceptionally selfish towards her children, for important as parenthood is as an element of life, it is not satisfying if it is treated as the whole of life, and the unsatisfied parent is likely to be an emotionally grasping parent. It is important, therefore, that motherhood should not cut her off from all other interests and pursuits.”
He thinks that women should have help caring for children so that they don’t become overbearing. He doesn’t believe, like many of his time and many of ours, that it’s a woman’s duty to raise her children without relying on nannies or daycare.
Ch 14 – Work
“The more intelligent rich men work nearly as hard as if they were poor.”
How to Find Interesting Work
“Two chief elements make work interesting: first, the exercise of skill, and second, construction.”
How to Spot an Untrustworthy Revolutionary
“But not infrequently a man will engage in activities of which the purpose is destructive without regard to any construction that may come after. Frequently he will conceal this from himself by the belief that he is only sweeping away in order to build afresh, but it is generally possible to unmask this pretense, when it is a pretense, by asking him what the subsequent construction is to be. On this subject it will be found that he will speak vaguely and without enthusiasm, whereas on the preliminary destruction he has spoken precisely and with zest.” Something to keep in mind when electing leaders.
Ch 15 – Impersonal Interests
Have Interests Outside of Work
“One of the great sources of unhappiness, fatigue and nervous strain is inability to be interested in anything that is not of practical importance to one’s own life. The result of this is that the conscious mind gets no rest from a certain small number of matters, each of which probably involves some anxiety and some element of worry. Except in sleep the conscious mind is never allowed to lie fallow while subconscious thought matures its gradual wisdom. The result is excitability, lack of sagacity, irritability, and a loss of sense of proportion.”
“It is, however, essential that these interests should not exercise those very faculties which have been exhausted by his day’s work.”
Forget Yourself Sometimes
“A sense of proportion is very valuable and at times very consoling. We are all inclined to get unduly excited, unduly strained, unduly impressed with the importance of the little corner of the world in which we live, and of the little moment of time comprised between our birth and death.”
A good, broad education instills a good, nuanced moral compass. It is possible to progress forward politically or scientifically without education in the humanities, but if you don’t develop good ethical sense, you could do more harm than good in the long run.
Ch 16 – Effort and Resignation
“One respect in which it is necessary to preserve the golden mean is as regards the balance between effort and resignation. Both doctrines have had extreme advocates. The doctrine of resignation has been preached by saints and mystics; the doctrine of effort has been preached by efficiency experts and muscular Christians.”
“Countries which believe in resignation and what is mistakenly called a “spiritual” view of life are countries with a high infant mortality. Medicine, hygiene, asepsis, suitable diet, are things not achieved without mundane preoccupations; they require energy and intelligence directed to the material environment. Those who think matter is an illusion are apt to think the same of dirt, and by so thinking to cause their children to die.”
Power and Altruism
“The man who is actuated by purely altruistic suffering caused by the spectacle of human misery will, if his suffering is genuine, desire power to alleviate misery.”
“To the mentality of the West this conclusion may seem commonplace, but there are not a few in Western countries who coquette with what is called “the wisdom of the East” just at the moment when the East is abandoning it. To them perhaps what we have been saying may appear questionable, and if so, it has been worth saying.”
“Resignation, however, has also its part to play in the conquest of happiness, and it is a part no less essential than that played by effort. The wise man, though he will not sit down under preventable misfortunes, will not waste time and emotion upon such as are unavoidable.”
“Efficiency in a practical task is not proportional to the emotion that we put into it; indeed emotion is sometimes an obstacle to efficiency.”
“Resignation is of two sorts, one rooted in despair, the other in unconquerable hope. The first is bad; the second is good. The man who has suffered such fundamental defeat that he has given up hope of serious achievement may learn the resignation of despair, and, if he does, he will abandon all serious activity; he may camouflage his despair by religious phrases, or by the doctrine that contemplation is the true end of man. But whatever disguise he may adopt to conceal his inward defeat, he will remain essentially useless and fundamentally unhappy.”
“The man whose resignation is based on unconquerable hope acts in quite a different way. Hope which is to be unconquerable must be large and impersonal. Whatever my personal activities, I may be defeated by death, or by certain kinds of diseases; I may be overcome by my enemies; I may find that I have embarked upon an unwise course which cannot lead to success. In a thousand ways the failure of purely personal hopes may be unavoidable, but if personal aims have been part of larger hopes for humanity, there is not the same utter defeat when failure comes.”
Ch 17 – The Happy Man
On Life Philosophies (meta?)
“The man who is unhappy will, as a rule, adopt an unhappy creed, while the man who is happy will adopt a happy creed; each may attribute his happiness or unhappiness to his beliefs, while the real causation is the other way round.”