Do you ever feel unhappy without really knowing why? Nothing calamitous has happened to you. You are well off, doing well in your job or in school. You have loved ones and friends around. Nothing obvious seems to be missing from your life, yet you are unhappy. This is something that Bertrand Russell covers in his book, The Conquest of Happiness. The following video examines chapter 1 of this book, and the notes I used to make the video follow below.
“My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable.”
“I believe this unhappiness to be 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 … ultimately depends.”
Causes of Unhappiness
1. What Makes People Unhappy?
2. Byronic Unhappiness
4. Boredom and Excitement
7. The Sense of Sin
8. Persecution Mania
9. Fear of Public Opinion
Causes of Happiness
10. Is Happiness Still Possible?
13. The Family
15. Impersonal Interests
16. Effort and Resignation
17. The Happy Man
Bertrand Russell did not have a happy childhood. (You can read the graphic novel Logicomix: An epic search for truth for the story of his life.) Thanks to a religious upbringing, he was routinely focused on his own sinfulness. He hated life and was regularly on the verge of suicide. But as he grew up, he became less unhappy.
He attributes his greater happiness as an adult to three things:
1. Getting more of what he wants.
2. Ridding himself of some desires.
3. Becoming less preoccupied with himself, i.e. less self-absorbed.
Although external interests can bring pain too, they do not fundamentally destroy the quality of life in the way that disgust with himself had done.
Also, external interests inspire activity, which is a cure for ennui.
Self-absorption is a major cause of unhappiness.
Three common types of self-absorbed people:
1. The Sinner
2. The Narcissist
3. The Megalomaniac
This is someone who is “perpetually incurring his own disapproval.”
If he has consciously discarded the maxims he was taught in youth, he may act against them but then feel bad about it, souring any enjoyment he gets of out behaving in “sinful” ways.
“the habit of admiring oneself and wishing to be admired.”
“Vanity, when it passes beyond a certain point, kills pleasure in every activity for its own sake, and thus leads inevitably to listlessness and boredom.”
“The Megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved.”
Alexander the Great is given as an example of a megalomaniac who actually achieved typical megalomaniacal desires. Despite this, he kept wanting more.
Russell claims that Alexander the Great was not happy, and he cites “His drunkenness, his furious rages, his indifference to women, and his claim to divinity” as evidence that Alexander was not happy.
“Power kept within its proper bounds may add greatly to happiness, but as the sole end of life it leads to disaster, inwardly if not outwardly.”
What Causes Unhappiness?
The typical unhappy person desires some one kind of satisfaction more than any other.
Here is the original video I made on this chapter. It never got to megalomania, because of a ten minute limit on its length.