Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 (pages 48-56), “Boredom and Excitement”

In nature, humans seem to be the only animals prone to boredom, in part because the experience of boredom may require the perception of more agreeable activities than those that are currently engaged in. Humans, especially males, desire excitement. The movement from hunting and gathering to agriculture greatly promoted boredom; modern machinery actually lessens it.

[Russell provides a very amusing (though painful) picture of previous lower-class society, where wives and daughters had to endure hours of “family time” after dinner – time in which they couldn’t read, but were expected to listen to their father’s dull monologues. He indicates how it was even worse in the middle ages, and speculates that witch hunts were dreamed up to relieve the tedium -- RBR].

“We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom [p. 50].” We don’t think that boredom is part of the human condition, so we pursue excitement – live in cities, listen to the radio, take our cars to the movies, drink alcohol – to keep boredom at bay. But then the necessary down times will appear boring in contrast. Even quarrels and wars might be engaged in to stem ennui. “Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it [p. 51].”

Boredom that is endured without drugs can be fruitful. Drugs can be beneficial, more frequently than the prohibitionists allow. “But the craving for drugs is certainly something which cannot be left to the unfettered operation of natural impulse [pp. 50-1].” Someone accustomed to drugs, in their absence, faces a trial of boredom that only time can overcome. Tolerance, craving, and withdrawal, however, apply to all strong stimulations, not just those provoked by drugs. We must be moderate in our pursuit of excitement to maintain our capacity for pleasure. “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 [p. 52].”

Great books and good lives all contain boring passages. Imagine what a modern publisher would say if, for the first time, the Old Testament were presented for potential publication. A thorough reduction to edit out the dull bits and enliven the text would be required. A similar rewrite would be mandated for almost all old books now considered classics. Accomplished people generally lead quiet lives, as they need to preserve their energy for their arduous work.

Russell (p. 53) again returns to the theme that children should be taught to endure monotony. Children need structured quotidian existences, and shouldn’t be overindulged with passive pleasures such as watching shows or with the stimulations of excessive travel. The higher pleasures are those that the child himself creates within a structured environment, “by means of some effort and inventiveness [p. 54].” Constant diversions generate drug-like tolerance, and undermine the ability to direct energy towards distant, long-term goals.

Russell admits to adopting a mystical tone. Pleasures should be of the slow sort, in keeping with the pace of the earth and its seasons. Gambling is one example of a pleasure that has no earthly contact; such pursuits are joyless, and lead to dissatisfaction the moment they are abandoned. Pleasures, “on the other hand, that bring us into contact with the life of the Earth have something in them profoundly satisfying; when they cease, the happiness that they have brought remains, although their intensity while they existed may have been less than that of more exciting dissipations [p. 55].” (A similar distinction applies to love versus mere sexual attraction.) Urban dwellers, disconnected from those slow earthly rhythms, suffer from a boredom brought on by fear of boredom. “A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live [p. 56].”

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