Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 (pages 124-136), “Zest”

Zest is the mark of the happy person. You can see a parallel in the attitude some people adopt when sitting down for a meal. [Russell offers an amusing portrait of people of various characters, such as epicures and gluttons, taking nourishment.] One version of diner is a person who possesses a healthy appetite, enjoys the meal, but doesn’t overeat. This is the approach that a happy person of zest brings to all of life’s offerings. “What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life [p. 125].” Those unhappy Bryonic types are like folks who are bored by eating. Nevertheless, most people who don’t enjoy, or don’t allow themselves to enjoy, the feast of life view the healthy partaker as somehow inferior. But the more aspects of life from which you can draw pleasure -- whether dining or football or reading -- the better. Broad interests allow you to avoid introversion and unhappiness.

Russell tells a parable of two sausage-making machines. The first takes pleasure in the pigs that are its inputs and in turning them into sausage, while the second spends its time reflecting upon its own inner machinery, eventually failing to function at sausage making at all. “This second sausage machine was like the man who has lost his zest, while the first was like the man who has retained it [p. 126].” Our minds need to reflect on the outer world, even if we are to be successful at meaningful introspection. It is our interest in things that converts events into experiences. We are better adapted to our world, the broader our interests. A keen specialized interest alleviates tedium, though holding a wider array of interests is a more reliable aid to happiness.

When we travel, we are exposed to many different people. Some travelers will take stock of their surroundings, and try to imagine the thoughts and circumstances of those around them, while others will pay them no heed. Some people find everyone else boring, while others quickly develop friendly feeling towards those nearby. Even unpleasant experiences such as an earthquake hold value for people possessing zest, though some forms of illness can destroy zest.

Russell takes up again the issue of the difference between the man of zest (the man with the healthy appetite) and the man of intemperance. A glutton sacrifices all of life’s other pleasures to indulge in eating, with consequent cost to overall happiness; those addicted to other pleasures suffer a similar fate. For happiness, our passions must fit within a sensible framework of living. “If they are to be a source of happiness they must be compatible with health, with the affection of those whom we love, and with the respect of the society in which we live [p. 130].” The acceptable limits of a passion depend upon one’s circumstances: a rich bachelor can devote much more time and energy to chess, in a manner consistent with happiness, than can a man with familial and economic obligations. Alcoholism and gluttony, as they undermine health, are roads to unhappiness even for those who have the time and means to indulge. Passions become miseries if not contained within a solid lifestyle, which includes physical and mental health, income sufficient for necessities, and adequate attention to social and familial duties. To sacrifice these essential elements to an interest is wrong, whether the interest be alcohol or chess. It is one thing to work during the day with some savor of that evening’s forthcoming chess match; it is something else entirely to play chess all day instead of working. The latter is a violation of the classic virtue of moderation. Society, however, sometimes is willing to forgive the neglect of familial duties, especially if the military or creative passion that draws the sacrifice meets with success.

Passions often are indulged to excess, as in the case of alcoholism, with a view to becoming oblivious to something painful. Seeking oblivion through dedication to a commendable end or the development of valuable faculties cannot be condemned. “It is otherwise with the man who seeks oblivion in drinking or gambling or any other form of unprofitable excitement [p. 132].” There can be some close calls, however, such as those people who seek escape through risky adventures that simultaneously might serve some public object.

“Genuine zest, not the sort that is really a search for oblivion, is part of the natural make-up of human beings except in so far as it has been destroyed by unfortunate circumstances [pp. 132-3].” Human children and animals of all ages show a natural curiosity. Much of the curtailment of zest in human adults is necessary to rein in liberties whose indulgence would threaten society. Our impulses arrive haphazardly, but we need regularity to get the trains to run smoothly or for the successful completion of any other task that requires considerable coordination. The constant fettering of our impulses, especially at work, makes it hard to remain zestful.

Health and energy are necessary for zest. Health seems to have been improving for the past century in developed countries, but energy, perhaps not. For women, “zest has been greatly diminished by a mistaken conception of respectability [p. 135].” Women are victimized by being taught not to be too lively in public and not to take too evident an interest in men. “To such women all that is ungenerous appears good and all that is generous appears evil [p. 135].” The stifling of interests and sociability in woman is pernicious. “For women as for men zest is the secret of happiness and well-being [p. 136].”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 (pages 113-123), “Is Happiness Still Possible?”

It is tempting to believe that it is impossible to achieve happiness in the modern world, but Russell finds contrary evidence through “introspection, foreign travel, and the conversation of my gardener [p. 113].”

Happiness can roughly be said to come in intellectual and physical (or perhaps complex and mundane) varieties. Russell’s elderly gardener finds joy in physical exertion and his ongoing struggle against the depredations of rabbits. But even the highly educated can achieve the same species of happiness, which comes from overcoming obstacles to achieve success. To bring consistent joy, success should be the typical, though not the invariable, outcome. Someone who is overoptimistic will be unpleasantly surprised by failure, so there is something to be said for modesty, in that the surprises that are likely to come your way will tend to be pleasant. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t be overly modest, as then you will steer clear of worthy challenges.

Among the highly educated classes, scientists are particularly happy. “Many of the most eminent of them are emotionally simple, and obtain from their work a satisfaction so profound that they can derive pleasure from eating, and even marrying [p. 115].” Their intelligence is channeled into their work – work which is commonly understood to be progressive and important – and hence they do not over-complicate their emotional lives. Their work fully engages their intelligence. The public applauds scientific genius, even though it cannot understand the fruits of that genius, while the same public vilifies artistic genius which produces similarly incomprehensible outputs. So scientists typically are happy and artists typically are unhappy.

Intelligent young people in the West have a species of dissatisfaction that comes from not possessing appropriate outlets to engage their capacities. Their counterparts in Russia are probably quite happy, as they can be part of the creation of a whole new world, one in which they believe they hold the key to its creation. Older people in Russia have been rendered ineffectual (often through violence), reducing the constraints upon the activities of the young. Further, the belief that the Russian youth have in their creative potential is not misplaced – they probably can produce a better world than what existed in the pre-revolutionary era, even if it is a world sophisticated Westerners would want no part of.

Young people in India, China, and Japan also have work that they view as important and in which they can be successful. Western-style youthful cynicism “results from the combination of comfort with powerlessness [p. 117].” An Eastern youth, neither powerless nor comfortable, eschews cynicism for a reformer’s zeal: “…probably even while he is being executed he enjoys more real happiness than is possible for the comfortable cynic [p. 117].”

“The pleasure of work is open to any one who can develop some specialized skill, provided that he can get satisfaction from the exercise of his skill without demanding universal applause [p. 118].” This sentiment remains largely true despite our heavily mechanized economy. Indeed, peasants are less happy for having their output subject to the vicissitudes of nature, whereas those who work with machines can enjoy near-total control. Further, machines hold the potential to eliminate the most routine, uninteresting work. Humans gave up the satisfying occupation of hunting when they took to agriculture (an exchange made to reduce the risk of starvation), and entered “a long period of meanness, misery, and madness, from which they are only now being freed by the beneficent operation of the machine [pp. 119-120].” Young men can’t wait to leave the countryside for the companionship that can be found within the city and its factories.

Belief in a cause, even an absurd one, promotes happiness, though Russell is not suggesting that his readers take up ridiculous causes – there are plenty of solid ones. A similar type of happiness can be found in devotion to a hobby: “any pleasure that does no harm to other people is to be valued [p. 121].” Russell notes that he is a collector of rivers, in that he likes to visit as many as he can. But the happiness found in hobbies and such generally is not deep. “Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things [p. 121].”

A friendly interest in people amounts to observing and taking pleasure in their individuality, interests, and quirks. This approach can not be taken on in a spirit of abnegation: it must be sincere. “People wish to be liked, not to be endured with patient resignation. To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness [p. 122].” A similarly cheerful approach to things – like the attitude of geologists towards rocks – yields something of the same type of happiness, and provides a helpful respite from our focus on our personal concerns.

“The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile [p. 123].”

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Halftime

Chapter 9 marks the end of “Causes of Unhappiness,” which is the first section of The Conquest of Happiness. The second and final section, “Causes of Happiness,” picks up with Chapter 10. So now is an appropriate moment for a halftime report, especially as this timing preserves the RBR custom of declaring halftime at a point somewhat beyond the physical midpoint of the text: “Causes of Happiness” is a bit shorter than “Causes of Unhappiness.”

A lack of moderation is probably the most consistent component of Russell’s analysis of the causes of unhappiness. Excessive self-absorption; excessive love of power; excessive pursuit of excitement; excessive estimation of one’s own virtues, abilities, or interest for other people; excessive ambition, envy, or belief in the malevolence of others; excessive concern with public opinion, excessive labor, and even excessive altruism – these all are causes of unhappiness.

Rational thought is one of the cures for these ills, especially those that are based on false beliefs, such as the typical overestimation of one’s own talents and virtues. Other false (and probably subconscious) beliefs, in particular, those that associate pleasure with wickedness – which Russell thinks are quite widespread due to improper yet standard moral upbringing – also can be combatted by examining their untruth. Russell’s decision to begin his specific listing of the causes of unhappiness with “Byronic unhappiness” can be seen as part of the larger project of countering unhappiness with correct thinking. In Unpopular Essays, Russell takes aim at Leibniz and other philosophers for pushing too far their ambitions to uncover truths through reasoning, to believe that deep understandings can be generated “by merely sitting still and thinking…[Unpopular Essays, p. 60].” The major premise of The Conquest of Happiness, at least so far, is that unhappiness can be overcome by sitting still and thinking – but not too much!

In recent years there has been a burgeoning of research into happiness, and much of what Russell has to say anticipates this literature. Russell, like Adam Smith before him, recognizes that people adapt fairly quickly to the stable conditions in which they find themselves. [Here’s Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (III.I.72): “…in every permanent situation, where there is no expectation of change, the mind of every man, in a longer or shorter time, returns to its natural and usual state of tranquillity.”] Adaptation, the hedonic treadmill, is one of the chief tenets of modern happiness research. For Russell, adaptation is one reason to be moderate in pursuing excitement, because you will find you will need a larger dose for the same effect in the future. Russell also picks out (in Chapter 5) some conditions, such as noise and a hard commute to work, that current researchers believe people have less facility in adapting to – and hence these conditions undermine happiness. Despite our powers of adaptation, Russell notes that for full human flourishing, stability alone generally is not enough: a person has to dwell in an environment congenial to his or her tastes and beliefs. Russell does not believe that rationality per se crowds out other forms of happiness – otherwise reasoning one’s way to happiness would be a fool’s errand – though he does recognize that dwelling on oneself too much is a symptom of unhappiness.

Russell again follows Smith in regarding a quiet life as a key to happiness. Smith virtually equates tranquillity and happiness (TMS, III.I.72): “Happiness consists in tranquillity and enjoyment. Without tranquillity there can be no enjoyment; and where there is perfect tranquillity there is scarce any thing which is not capable of amusing.” Russell is only slightly less assertive: “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].”] Russell is in accord with much current thinking when he attributes some unhappiness to indecision or second guessing, a lack of commitment to a choice. Further, what is sometimes called “flow,” the losing of oneself in a challenging but doable task, is associated with happiness in modern discussions, and it looks as if Russell understands the importance of flow, too -- for instance, when he suggests in Chapter 2 that not having to struggle undermines happiness.

As usual, I find myself in broad agreement with Russell’s argument. Further, I believe that the process of reading the first half of this book has contributed to my own happiness! I have tried to employ Russellian advice, for instance, to moderate my envy and my fear of societal disapprobation. One of my consumption decisions has been affected by Russell’s admonition to avoid spending money on things that we only value because society expects certain sorts of expenditures. Now I have to read the second half of The Conquest of Happiness not just to avoid unhappiness, but to find happiness.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 (pages 100-110), “Fear of Public Opinion”

Happiness for most people requires that their social set approve of their actions and ideas, though there are multitudinous social sets that support widely varying and even opposing views. The young frequently catch ideas that are disapproved of where they live, and not having exposure to the rest of the world, don’t know that those ideas might well be lauded or commonplace elsewhere. “Thus through ignorance of the world a great deal of unnecessary misery is endured…[p. 101].” [So does internet access decrease misery? — RBR] It requires tremendous energy to maintain mental independence in the face of near-universal rejection of one’s ideas, and people in these circumstances typically are rendered too timid to follow their ideas to the ultimate conclusions.

Most young people find their own surroundings congenial, but for those with special intellectual or artistic talents (especially in small towns), adolescence is extremely trying. Their interests and beliefs will be roundly condemned, and only when they go to university will they find much fellow feeling. Still, there is a good chance that after school their setting or profession will require that they again conceal many of their thoughts and beliefs, and even if it is not required, “unnecessary timidity [p. 103]” might lead to this intellectual isolation. Public opinion is a bit like a dog, less likely to attack those who ignore it than those who fear it – at least for those whose deviancies from the conventional line are not too radical. The flouting of convention will be more tolerable from someone if their behavior is not viewed as a criticism of the herd, so a jolly and good-natured person has more scope for lapsing from custom.

Alas, the lack of sympathy from others tends to make unconventional people not so jolly and good-natured, even if they hide their views. In a congenial setting, their whole character will seem to change for the better. Young people should willingly sacrifice income to place themselves in such a favorable setting. Many do not know of the existence of appropriate locales, and in this matter, experienced elders could offer useful advice.

Geniuses of the past (like Galileo and Kepler) have managed to overcome society’s repression, but these are only the ones we know about. What about those geniuses or people of talent who were not so fortunate to be able to successfully shield themselves and their ideas from the persecutors? We need to limit the hostility that society can bestow upon the unconventional, to ensure that talent thrives.

The young should not respect the wishes of the old, when those wishes refer (as they frequently do) to the lives of the young. A young person who wants to go upon the stage might be met with warnings and threats from his parents. But if he has no aptitude in the thespian arts, the professionals will let him know that expeditiously – and theirs is an opinion that is worthy of some respect, especially by the inexperienced. The parents will adapt soon enough to their child’s occupational choice.

With the exception of expert opinion, the views of others should hold little influence. Many people spend money not in ways that they would in isolation, but because certain modes of spending are the done thing. Knee-jerk opposition to public opinion, however, is another case of being in thrall to convention; indifference is best, both for individual happiness and for making society interesting. Traditionally, aristocrats had the social freedom to follow their own interests, but with the decline of aristocracy, this source of human diversity is drying up. [Russell here is echoing On Liberty, where John Stuart Mill, too, bemoans the increasing uniformity in human characters.]

Improvements in transport mean that people have more scope for finding congenial companions – one is not limited to a small set of neighbors. [Again, Russell anticipates the web?:] “Social intercourse may be expected to develop more and more along these lines, and it may be hoped that by these means the loneliness that now afflicts so many unconventional people will be gradually diminished almost to vanishing point [sic, p. 109].”

People today probably have less reason to fear the disapproval of their neighbors, but more reason to fear public attacks in the press, which can be terrifying. [Once again, one gets the impression that Russell is drawing on painful personal experience -- RBR.] Press freedom might require some legal curtailment, given the huge costs that malicious publicity can impose upon innocent people. The best answer, however, is more tolerance. The spread of true happiness will promote tolerance, as happy people are less likely to seek pleasure by persecuting others.