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.

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