I had developed a prejudice against Bertrand Russell because of what seemed an offensive comment he made about his first wife. Despite this irrational dislike for him I decided last year to give another read to ‘The Conquest of Happiness’, a most wonderfully simple work by him.
As a teenager I had read it with skepticism, thinking it rather smug of the writer to prescribe formulas to readers as if there was a single magic solution to unhappiness. Years later I read the book again and was delightedly surprised to find out that it seemed directly addressed to me. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it that it speaks of the basic causes of unhappiness common to the human condition and not only of specific manifestations in individuals. Its recommendations range from simple hobbies to philosophical self-analysis. If you are ready to take advice from someone who claims that the desire to learn mathematics saved him from committing suicide in adolescence–most teenagers would testify to the contrary–then you may find The Conquest of Happiness the best self-help book ever written.
The book is divided into sections on causes of unhappiness and sources of happiness. The former, Russell says, is rooted in attitudes like fear of public opinion, introversion, envy and one interesting thing called the persecution mania. A victim of persecution mania is always asking ‘why me?’ and suggesting from their behavior that the entire world is out to ‘get’ them. They are unable to believe in others’ good intentions and find it extremely difficult to be content in life. The most significant cause of unhappiness is diagnosed by Russell as self-centeredness. It is not possible to experience real joy as long as our thoughts, interests and efforts are directed inwards. Self-centered people are narcissists, megalomaniacs or victims of Byronic unhappiness. The former two always require praise, homage and power, insatiable things that are forever consuming them from within. The latter condition of Byronic unhappiness, a malaise that also plagues this reviewer, is an intellectual inconsistency in which people profess their disillusion with the world claiming to have come to the philosophical conclusion that the world is a mortal and inherently sad place where no joy is possible, whereas in reality their outlook has been shaped by limited, particular experiences which they use as a lens to view the general human condition through.
After analyzing unhappiness Russell proceeds to give the reader strong hope. Happiness is not dependent on fate or the coincidence of being born rich or beautiful. You can conquer it. Russell tells you how. You can find joy in simple yet essential things like family, work, love and healthy interests. Clichéd as it sounds our mathematician-philosopher cites sharing a sunset with a loved one as a source of deep joy and further goes on to say that if you have never had such a simple experience you may find it very difficult to find happiness in anything else. Most importantly, happiness is found in constructive outward activity. Take the example of charity or social work. If you are involved in them to feel better about yourself, to improve your image as a good person or worst of all, to beautify your CV, you may not find the satisfaction you expect. But if the intention is to actually help someone, to alleviate someone’s pain regardless of how it makes you feel, this would eventually introduce you to the joy of self-less giving. So the next time you feel up to taking a genuine shot at true happiness try helping someone anonymously, try not to take credit for some great contribution and try to forget your sacrifices.
In conclusion, I would strongly recommend you to read The Conquest of Happiness and let it help you. You might already be the happiest person alive. But for those moments of darkness when pessimism threatens to engulf you, this book can help rediscover the joy of human bonding, generosity and creative contribution to the world. The pursuit of happiness is strangely compelling to the human being and the art to be happy, thankfully, can be learnt. This book will help you learn this very important skill. Happy reading!
The contributor is a student at National Defence University.