Friday, January 2, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 5

Chapter 5 (pages 57-66), “Fatigue”

Moderate physical fatigue conduces to sound sleep, a healthy appetite, enjoyment of holidays, and happiness. [Later, on page 61, Russell suggests that the same is true of intellectual fatigue, provided it does not involve an emotional component. – RBR] Excessive physical work, however, is destructive of health and happiness. Fortunately, the torture of physical overwork has been curtailed in modern industrial societies, but nervous fatigue is rampant, especially among those who are materially well off.

Urban dwellers must contend with noise, constant exposure to strangers, and the daily rush to the workplace. On the job, the subordinate must be unnaturally respectful, again adding to pressure. Even successful businesspeople are nervous wrecks, as they achieve their success through years of strain and concentration. Those who could live comfortably on family fortunes nevertheless manufacture stresses – via gambling or lack of sleep – that mimic those of workers. “Voluntarily or involuntarily, of choice or of necessity, most moderns lead a nerve-racking life and are continually too tired to be capable of enjoyment without the help of alcohol [p. 59].”

Much fatigue comes from worry, “and worry could be prevented by a better philosophy of life and a little more mental discipline [p. 59].” People fruitlessly worry about problems at times during which they can do nothing about them. Happiness and efficiency can both be nurtured through the mental discipline to think through and deal with problems only when they are ripe. Second guessing also should be eliminated, in the absence of new information: “Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile [p. 60].”

Our anxiety about our performance can be lessened by the realization that the world at large, and even our personal world, is unlikely to be much affected by the quality of our feats. We can acclimate ourselves even to great misfortunes.

Unlike physical or intellectual fatigue, which promote sleep, emotional fatigue undermines rest, and it has a tendency to cascade. “One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster [p. 61].” It is not work that produces a nervous breakdown, but some underlying emotional problem for which work provides an (ineffectual) escape.

Controlling the worries that afflict the unconscious is possible with enough conscious attention. Russell sees the unconscious as consisting largely of emotional thoughts that were once conscious, but have become buried. Russell tries to take advantage of this feature of the unconscious. He thinks very hard for a few days about a difficult topic that he is working on. Next, he banishes the topic from his conscious thought, assigning it to his unconscious. “After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done [p. 63].” He used to spend the intervening time in fruitless worry, but he is no longer disheartened by the lack of evident progress.

Russell advocates a parallel process for anxieties. Think hard about the worst that can happen, and focus on just how limited the disaster would be (as is always true). Repeat this process if necessary – the end result is that anxiety is supplanted by “a kind of exhilaration [p. 63].”

Worries grow from fears unconfronted, and worries should be combatted by rational, intense thought about the fearful prospect. Eventually, the fear will be familiar, and lose its potency. If you find yourself brooding on a subject, intentionally brood even more intensely, until familiarity or boredom neutralizes the object of concern.

Society praises physical courage in men, but not in women, and moral courage in no one. If society offered its imprimatur to other forms of courage, such as bucking conventional opinion, there would be an increased supply of those types of courage, less fear and worry, and hence less fatigue.

Russell returns to the topic of how the desire for excitement leads to fatigue. He suggests that men develop a taste for this excitement because they cannot afford to marry at a young age – due to the financial demands that marriage as currently constituted places upon husbands. Russell then cites the case of Judge Lindsey, whose proposal for easily-abrogated companionate marriages, which would add to human happiness if adopted, nevertheless caused the judge to be widely reviled. (Russell also defended Lindsey in Marriage and Morals, which was published the year before The Conquest of Happiness.) But without a significant change in social institutions, what is a young man to do? Russell counsels moderation in the pursuit of fatiguing pleasures, to ensure that the young man will still be capable of a happy union when his circumstances allow him to marry.

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