Friday, November 28, 2008

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 1

Chapter One (pages 15-23), “What Makes People Unhappy?”

You might be happy yourself, but when you look around you can see that unhappiness abounds, even on holidays or at parties. The origin of some unhappiness lies in the social system, stemming, for instance, from the prevalence of war, economic exploitation, or poverty. This book will not deal with those big issues, however. The focus rather will be on how an individual person, unremarkable in wealth and health, can find happiness, given the prevailing social conditions. “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 [p. 17].”

Russell relates that he was unhappy as a child, and suicidal as an adolescent, though buoyed then by the desire to learn more mathematics. Now (1930) he is happy, and getting happier, it seems, chiefly “due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself [p. 18].” Self-absorption, whether in one’s perceived sins, or manifested as narcissism or megalomania, is quite common. The sinner may believe that his adult reason has allowed him to discard those nostrums taught to him in his infancy, but he still retains them. Pleasures, especially sex, he has learned to think of as wicked. He partakes, but cannot enjoy his transgressions. The only pleasure his early training permits him is his mother’s caresses. These are unattainable as an adult, and he cannot respect those who provide a substitute, his sexual partners. Liberation from these ingrained beliefs and desires is a necessary step for happiness.

Narcissists cannot love others, and lose interest in a romantic partner once they are sure that the partner loves them. Their work, sustained by the thought of the acclaim they will win from professional success, is undermined by their lack of interest in the subject itself: “…the man whose sole concern with the world is that it shall admire him is not likely to achieve his object [p. 21].” Extreme vanity leads to boredom, as activities cannot be enjoyed in themselves. The problem might stem from a lack of self-confidence, and could be cured by an infusion of self-respect. “But this is only to be gained by successful activity inspired by objective interests [p. 21].”

Many madmen and most great men have been megalomaniacs, focused on power and the inspiring of fear in others. Alexander the Great, differentiated from the lunatic by the fact that Alexander really could achieve domination, still could not achieve happiness, as his ambition outran his success. Any megalomaniac must also fail eventually, though this thought (and those who dare to speak it) can be repressed – while the psychological repression itself precludes happiness. Like self-love, love of power in moderation conduces to happiness; when all-consuming, however, it is disastrous.

What is the general lesson? “The typical unhappy man is one who, having been deprived in youth of some normal satisfaction, has come to value this one kind of satisfaction more than any other, and has therefore given to his life a one-sided direction, together with a quite undue emphasis upon the achievement as opposed to the activities connected with it [p. 22].” Narcissists and megalomaniacs believe that happiness is possible, though they employ unsuitable means for finding it. Many others give up even the thought of finding happiness. They seek distraction instead, perhaps in the “temporary suicide” of drunkenness. The first step for these discouraged souls is to convince them that happiness is desirable. Such persuasion might not be easy: “Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact [p. 23].” But most people will seek happiness if they believe that it is attainable.

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