The Conquest of Happiness

Bertrand Russell has had a profound effect on my thinking and outlook on life. I read a significant number of his books and philosophical essays when I was around 16 – 19. It’s only, in recent years, when I overview the content of what I had read – stuff that may have slipped from the conscious access of my memory – that I discover the extent of that influence.

Today in particular,  by accident I come across ‘The Conquest of Happiness‘. I scan through the stuff and get to Chapter 5: Fatigue – and of course it’s not just about ‘fatigue’ in the usual sense of the word. Amazingly Bertie had been exploring the ‘unconcsious’ – that concept I often refer to as ‘substrata’ – the elusive ‘substrata’. I too would have embarked unknowingly on an exploration of the same in reading all this stuff.

In the meantime a young man does well to reflect that he will ultimately be in a position to marry, and that he will be unwise if he lives in such a way as to make a happy marriage impossible, which may easily happen through frayed nerves and an acquired incapacity for the gentler pleasures.
One of the worst features of nervous fatigue is that it acts as a sort of screen between a man and the outside world. Impressions reach him, as it were, muffled and muted; he no longer notices people except to be irritated by small tricks or mannerisms; he derives no pleasure from his meals or from the sunshine, but tends to become tensely concentrated upon a few objects and indifferent to all the rest. This state of affairs makes it impossible to rest, so that fatigue continually iucreases until it reaches a point where medical treatment is required.

 These words and more were probably etched somewhere in my mind at that ‘tender’ age.  If you take the time to browse this book you would see that many of the things Bertie refers to are not greatly different from what you’d pick up from your local Pastor or Guru. But his words and reasoning are so sharp – so logical and yet so human.

I do not recommened that you read this book. To recommend it might be taken as an attempt to change ‘you’. As Bertie says in the book:

In all your dealings with other people, especially with those who are nearest and dearest, it is important and not always easy to remember that they see life from their own angle and as it touches their own ego, not from your angle and as it touches yours. No person should be expected to distort the main lines of his life for the sake of another individual. On occasion there may exist such a strong affection that even the greatest sacrifices become natural, but if they are not natural they should not be made, and no person should be held blameworthy for not making them.

If you scan the book and you wish to read more then please do.


Part I: Causes of Unhappiness

Chapter 1: What makes people unhappy?

Chapter 2: Byronic Unhappiness

Chapter 3: Competition

Chapter 4: Boredom and excitement

Chapter 5: Fatigue

Chapter 6: Envy

Chapter 7: The sense of sin

Chapter 8: Presecution mania

Chapter 9: Fear of public opinion

Part II: Causes of happiness

Chapter 10: Is happiness still possible?

Chapter 11: Zest

Chapter 12: Affection

Chapter 13: The family

Chapter 14: Work

Chapter 15: Impersonal interests

Chapter 16:Effort and resignation

Bertie did not suggest that if you read this book and follow its ‘guidance’ you’ll ‘conquer happiness’ or become more ‘happy’. The title means to me, that if you aim to conquer happiness, you’ll probably not be caught on a treadmill slavishly seeking happiness. Instead you might be more determined to do things that foster happiness, but you’d be prepared to accept more readily that life is more than merely about happiness. Seeing and feeling the greater whole is another ‘level’ – beyond mere happiness.

And proof that Bertie could not guarantee happiness in his own life is evidenced by his several divorces,  his dependence on alcohol and tobacco products. That need not detract from the wisdom in his writings. No mortal is perfect.

I’ll be reviewing much of Bertie’s works over the next few weeks.

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