The Conquest of Happiness – a book reivew

conquestofhappinessI came to add Bertrand Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness” to my reading queue in a roundabout way. I’d heard about a popular philosophy book, and when I looked it up online, “Conquest” was included in one of those “other books you’d like” lists in the margin (which also led me to reading Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”.)

While each chapter is a fairly short read, it took me awhile to complete the book because I felt the need to wait until I was in the mood to properly digest its ideas before I picked it up. I’m glad I purchased this book instead of checking it out from the library. I’ve made all sorts of scribblings and notes in the margins. I had conversations with this book, and made connections to all sorts of situations in the world today and in my life. I’m sure I’ll continue to refer to it in the future.

I’ve already posted on this blog a couple of items that struck me as I was reading: here and here, and I also made a few postings of quotations on social media.

social media posts of quotesI’d certainly recommend the book to anyone thinking about the meaning of life or happiness or work-life balance or politics or parenthood, but with an asterisk.

*Several passages in the book come off as racist or sexist. Not to be apologetic, but it reflects attitudes of Bertrand’s time. Based on the majority of the book, I scoffed at the notion that Bertrand was, in fact, a feminist in his day. Then I came across this sentence:

A woman who has acquired any kind of professional skill ought, both for her own sake and for that of the community, to be free to continue to exercise this skill in spite of motherhood.

Hm.

There is so much I could write and quote about this book, but I’ll cut it down to two items.

1. I bet Bertrand would have been chary about the Internet, social media in particular. It could be argued that social media encourages excessive self-reflection, enables comparison, facilitates public shaming, and serves as a constant distraction from boredom – all of which would drain a person’s happiness, according to what I gleaned from the book. A few quotes to support my thesis:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man . . . 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. . . . A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young. . . .

The habit of thinking in terms of comparison is a fatal one. . . . In the old days people only envied their neighbors, because they knew little about any one else. Now through education and the press they know much  . . .

When the newspaper chooses to make a scapegoat of some perhaps quite harmless person, the results may be very terrible. Fortunately, as yet this is a fate which most people escape through their obscurity; but as publicity gets more and more perfect in its methods, there will be an increasing danger in this novel form of social persecution.

If all our happiness is bound up entirely in our personal circumstances it is difficult not to demand of life more than it has to give.

2. You have to work at being happy.

Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstances.

A few pointers I interpreted from the book, which sound like quotes from motivational posters:

  • Find a purpose in life.
  • Stop obsessing about yourself – you’re not really that important.
  • Focus on other people, connect with your community.
  • Allow yourself to slow down and be bored.
  • Stop comparing yourself to other people.
  • Face your fears, don’t worry about them.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Find “your people” – friends you can relate to.
  • Develop a hobby. Cultivate broad interests. Have new experiences. Travel.

This quote sums up a lot about why I like to read and travel:

Each of us is in the world for no very long time, and within the few years of his life has to acquire whatever he is to know of this strange planet and its place in the universe. To ignore our opportunities for knowledge, imperfect as they are, is like going to the theater and not listening to the play. The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising, and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are forgoing one of the privileges that life has to offer.

Be happy and enjoy the spectacle, friends.

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