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].”

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