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].”

No comments: