Review of Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness

book cover

A few weeks ago, I found a 1979 publication of this book in an old bookshelf in my room. I was hard-pressed to read a book. My modus operandi in this period of lockdown is to work on my laptop whenever there is power, and when the power is gone and my laptop battery is dead, which is not very frequent, I would ransack my room to find some hardcopy material to feed my mind on. In that old bookshelf were some great big texts on Consumerism, Policymaking and Executive Action, How to Manage by Objectives, etc. Since I had no interest in any of those, I choose to sail with The Conquest of Happiness. The cover used in this post is the same cover of the copy that I found.

I found the book to be both cheerful-comic and serious. Apart from the dated use of words (eg. the word actuated is used in places to mean ‘be moved to do something’), the work is easily understood. The author uses the language of logic and rationality, almost to a fault. An explanation to every cause of unhappiness is attempted, often by going back to what influence the subject’s family might have had on the subject when they were young. This approach opens room for some loopholes and few points of discord with the beliefs and experiences of different readers. For instance, it is reprehensible to me that the author suggests that the Oedipal complex is a cause of self-absorption and failed relationship. The work also lacks proper reference for many statistical claims and statements (eg relating a country’s view of resignation, as opposed to effort, to its infant mortality rate)

On the other hand, where the book attempts to proffer methods to overcome unhappiness and to view the world with zest, it frequently excels, and can hardly be faulted by an open-minded reader. I am going to talk more about some of those areas of strength, especially about certain chapters that resonated with me more than others.

The book is organized in two parts. The first part, titled “Causes of Unhappiness”, contains chapters that x-ray each cause of unhappiness, explaining how such causes of unhappiness come about, and proffering possible methods of conquering it. Some of the causes of unhappiness include competition, boredom and excitement, fatigue, envy, ‘the sense of sin’, persecution mania and fear of public opinion. The second part, titled “Causes of Happiness”, tries to do the reverse of the first part.

In the very first chapter titled ‘What Makes People Unhappy’, the author makes a statement that is key:

I believe [unhappiness] to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends.

The chapter on Persecution Mania has four hard truths for the idealist. There is an expansive chapter on Zest. Also a witty chapter on Affection. The chapter on Family opened my eyes to the predilection that working women face when going into marriage. The chapter on Work has some interesting lessons:

Two chief elements make work interesting: first, the exercise of a skill, and second, construction.

This chapter and the one after it on Impersonal Interests afford one a kind of framework on which to view and ‘debug’ the troubles of employment. To see how a job is impacting your happiness, two things you should look out for are how well the job allows you to make use of and continuously improve on some kind of specialized skill; and how constructive to society is the end goal of the job; in other words, would you be proud of the product or the progress that your team have made at the end of the project. There is also the need to have a sense of proportion about what we do. This means not overestimating the importance of our jobs.

The chapter on Boredom and Excitement was my favorite. On the necessity of striking a balance between boredom and excitement, the author writes:

Whatever we may wish to think, we are creatures of Earth; our life is part of the life of the Earth, and we draw our nourishment from it just as the plants and animals do. The rhythm of Earth life is slow; autumn and winter are essential to it as spring and summer, the rest is as essential as motion. To the child, even more than to the man, it is necessary to preserve some contact with the ebb and flow of terrestrial life.

The above passage does have something to say about the hedonistic bent of the book as a whole. There is much sadness in the universe, as well as much happiness, and both are essential to the rhythm of Earth life. In my opinion, it goes against the ‘ebb and flow’ for man to focus too much on the singular emotion of happiness, even though it is very desirable. So in conclusion, the methods advocated in this book should only be followed in moderation.