The conquest of happiness

Jorge G. Palomo

“I think the most universal and distinguishing characteristic of happy people is enthusiasm,” the master proclaims. “The secret of happiness is this: that your interests be as wide as possible and that your reactions to things and people that interest you be, as much as is possible, friendly and not hostile.” These were the words of Bertrand Russell, one of the great modern philosophers and a mathematician and university professor. His reflections are fully valid today and yet they date –attention– from 1930, the year in which he published his wonderful book The Conquest of Happiness.

During our current boom time for self-help books and stubborn optimism, it’s startling that this classic work –which is also brilliant– still stuns us like a bullet breaking glass. Almost a century later! “No profound philosophy or deep erudition will be found in the following pages. I have aimed only at putting together some remarks which are inspired by what I hope is common sense,” he humbly writes. But in a way this winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature is wrong: there’s enough grey matter here –delivered with a smile– to stop a speeding locomotive. His first blow at the Western world: “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that keeps men from living freely and nobly.” He’s hit the nail on the head.

If you want to, and make an effort, you will be happy

Let’s have a look at the author, who was orphaned at the age of six. Paradoxically,  Bertrand Russell spent half of his existence immersed in a certain apathy and sadness, and even confessed to an occasional suicidal urge. But he was reborn from his ashes, and apart from this magnificent work for inveterate readers and thinkers, he was finally able, as Monty Python might put it, to “always look on the bright side of things.” He overcame his low points and turned this special conquest of happiness into a potentially universal concept. A hymn to the need to keep everything in perspective, because “nobody should think they are perfect or worry too much about the fact that they are not.” An invitation to avoid the dominant egocentricity. “Nothing is so dull as to be encased in self, nothing so exhilarating as to have attention and energy directed outwards.”

Yes, seriously, it’s written in 1930, “in the belief that many people who are unhappy could become happy by well-directed effort,” he claims. And with his unique style, as if this were a letter to a friend, Russell sets out his observations in very clear sections: “Causes of Unhappiness” and “Causes of Happiness.” The aim is that, at the end of the game, we can paraphrase this powerful essayist: “When it comes time for me to die, I will not have felt that I lived in vain. I will have seen red sunsets in the afternoon, the morning dew, and the snow shining under the rays of the universal sun.”

What makes people unhappy?

Maybe human beings, like animals, should be happy while we have good health and food. But it’s not that easy. “If you are happy, ask yourself how many of your friends are so,” the philosopher says. “Though the kinds are different, you will find that unhappiness meets you everywhere.” Anxiety, stress, inconsideration for our neighbours, the impossibility of having fun… We look around us and often clearly see that our societies must urgently change. “The man who has all he wants is still unhappy. He forgets that to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness,” he writes. And another crack of the whip in the opening pages: “The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one.” Russell explains how fatigue, competition, public opinion, envy or a sense of guilt generate a great amount of dissatisfaction. Then he offers a key to salvation: “Anything that must be done can only be done correctly with the help of a certain amount of enthusiasm, and it’s hard to be enthusiastic without some personal motive.”

Is happiness still possible?

Yes, of course. “Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things,” he declares. Affection, love, knowledge, family, work, effort, resignation, knowledge, anxieties, cooperation… Of course this book will allow us to improve as persons, and will oblige us to have a notebook at hand, to develop the virtue of enthusiasm, and will even provoke a wry smile with statements like this: “A large part of the world’s difficulties can be attributed to the fact that the ignorant people are completely sure of themselves, and the intelligent ones are full of doubts.” Yes, it was published in 1930. And we’re not going to analyse it any further. Better yet, what if we try to work hard –it’s about time– toward this universal conquest?

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