Monday, March 30, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 15

Chapter 15 (pages 170-177), “Impersonal Interests”

This chapter concerns leisure pursuits that are not closely connected to one’s occupation, such as a scientist’s reading of advances in other fields. “One of the sources of unhappiness, fatigue and nervous strain is inability to be interested in anything that is not of practical importance in one’s own life [p. 171].” Without outside interests, the brain is always brooding about some practical matter, depriving the subconscious of the opportunity to play its role of leavening the valleys and disproportions in our mental states. We end up irritable and tired, and then the tiredness distances us further from impersonal interests, until the situation cascades to a breakdown.

Impersonal interests require no decisions, which are fatiguing. The notion of “sleeping on” an important decision demonstrates wisdom, as the subconscious can undertake its processing overnight – or while an impersonal interest is being pursued. The appropriate type of impersonal interest is one that does not require the same modes of thought as work, does not involve a financial interest (unlike work), and is not so exciting that the subconscious remains riveted to the leisure pursuit. Golf, theatre, spectator sports – these are just a few of the many types of impersonal pursuits that fit the bill.

Russell speculates that working women tend to be less able than are men to take their minds off their work and lose themselves in some impractical diversion. Though it may appear as if this conscientiousness improves work performance, Russell suspects that its long-run effects are deleterious from the point of view of workplace productivity.

Impersonal pursuits help put the relative significance (and the cosmic insignificance) of one’s main pursuits in useful perspective. Someone who overvalues their work might become a fanatic, and be willing to impose large costs to promote their work ends. “Against this fanatical temper there is no better prophylactic than a large conception of the life of man and his place in the universe [p. 173].” Without a generous survey of the world and its history, you will succumb to expedience, choosing dubious means as the efficient path to serving what might be worthy ends. The result often will be short-term success, but long-term pain. If you imbue your mental outlook with the proper sense of proportion, “you will realize that the momentary battle upon which you are engaged cannot be of such importance as to risk a backward step towards the darkness out of which we have been slowly emerging [p. 174].” A loss in today’s battle, or even a serious setback in your personal fortune, will also pain less, if you know that your efforts are connected to the long-term struggle of raising mankind out of barbarism.

Russell provides his vision for education, in which children are made aware of man’s small place in the universe and the minuteness of a single human lifespan within the current of mankind’s past and future journey on earth. Simultaneously, Russell would hope to “impress upon the mind of the young the greatness of which the individual is capable, and the knowledge that throughout all the depths of stellar space nothing of equal value is known to us [p. 175].” People, provided with such training, who become capable of greatness of soul develop a stoicism that allows them to be infused with joy even when external circumstances are trying.

Helping one to deal with those inevitable trying circumstances is another benefit of impersonal pursuits. The distraction that they provide, at moments when troubles cannot be addressed but must be endured, is a great salve to anxiety. Even grief in the death of a loved one must be moderated, and the right type of impersonal pursuits – not degrading practices such as excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs – can aid in that process. “To bear misfortune well when it comes, it is wise to have cultivated in happier times a certain width of interests, so that the mind may find prepared for it some undisturbed place suggesting other associations and other emotions than those which are making the present difficult to bear [p. 172].” All our loves, all our pursuits, are mortal, so we can only insure against devastation by diversifying the risk, by holding a wide portfolio of interests.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 14

Chapter 14 (pages 162-169), “Work”

Work, even dull work, tends to be better than idleness. Leisure time requires that decisions be made as to how to fill it – decisions that will bring no happiness as they are subject to constant second-guessing. Most people prefer to be told what to do and when to do it. So work alleviates tedium, and allows greater pleasure to be taken in intermittent vacations. Work also serves as an outlet for ambition and for generating a favorable reputation. “Continuity of purpose is one of the most essential ingredients of happiness in the long run, and for most men this comes chiefly through their work [p. 163].” The domestic work of housewives does not possess the same advantages (money, reputation, and satisfaction) as outside, paid work.

Though tedious work is better than idleness, some forms of work provide opportunities for profound pleasures. “Two chief elements make work interesting: first, the exercise of skill, and second, construction [p. 164].” People with special skills enjoy utilizing those skills, at least as long as those skills can continue to be honed. Some professions, such as politician or businessman, hold the potential for improvement, and hence happiness, into old age. “Construction” refers to the idea that there are varieties of work in which something ordered and lasting is left behind, as opposed to the rubble generated by destruction. While some destruction is a necessary prelude to further construction, many people engage in wholly destructive work; such people like to delude themselves that they are motivated by constructive purposes, when they actually are motivated by hate. Revolutionaries often are most detailed and eloquent when discussing their destructive purposes, but at a loss for any nuance when asked about constructing better alternatives. They might find pleasure in destruction, but destruction can be complete, and then their pleasure ends. Construction generally is ongoing, and even when complete brings joy in contemplation. Opportunities for constructive work are themselves an antidote to hate. “The satisfaction to be derived from success in a great constructive enterprise is one of the most massive that life has to offer, although unfortunately in its highest forms it is open only to men of exceptional ability [p. 167].” [Among the men of art and science whom Russell singles out as creators are Shakespeare and Lenin, the latter for generating order out of chaos; recall that Russell is not all that enamored of Lenin, however – RBR.] Later (page 169), Russell notes that bringing up passable children is a form of constructive work that can bring real, lasting satisfaction.

Great artists often are of a temperament that limits happiness; nevertheless, their artistic work, while perhaps not making them happy, makes them less unhappy. Successful scientists tend to be happy, with their work being the chief source of their satisfaction. (Russell is here returning to a topic that he discussed in Chapter 10, the happiness of scientists and (at least relative) unhappiness of artists -- RBR.)

Modern literary creators (including journalists) often are unhappy, because their work is directed by corporate Philistines, who commission output that the literary men “regard as pernicious nonsense [p. 168].” It is better to have such a corporate job, even if you disagree with the aims of your employer, than to starve. Nevertheless, it is better to receive less pay for work that you view as valuable in itself, than to receive a higher salary for work of which you are ashamed. Happiness doesn’t come easily without self-respect.

There is a good deal of variation in the extent to which people can view their lives as a whole. It is an advantage to do so, as then over time you can amalgamate the disparate parts of your life into a unified structure that is conducive to your own happiness, instead of going this way or that as current expedience dictates. “The habit of viewing life as a whole is an essential part both of wisdom and of true morality, and is one of the things which ought to be encouraged in education [p. 169].”

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 13

Chapter 13 (pages 145-161), “The Family”

Family life could be the great fount of happiness, but under current conditions, both parents and children typically find the whole exercise trying. The subject of this chapter, however, is limited to what can be done about familial unhappiness by individuals, without reforming society at large. [Nevertheless, this is the longest chapter of the book – RBR.]

Women used to be “driven into marriage by the intolerable conditions of life for the spinster [p. 146],” which included financial dependence on a male relative and, if unchaste, being socially scorned as a fallen woman. The entrance of women into careers and the decline of the domestic services industry means that parenthood comes at a heavier price than before for well-to-do women. In particular, career women almost invariably have to stop working if they give birth, reinstituting a life of financial dependence. Further, they are then confronted with “a new and appalling problem, namely the paucity and bad quality of domestic service [p. 147].” [An old complaint that was apparently not yet a chestnut in 1930, and a reminder of just how large a change it was when middle-class (particularly British?) folks could no longer afford to hire servants -- RBR.] So a former career woman either undertakes the domestic labor herself or becomes shrewish in dealing with the maids. “Weighed down by a mass of trivial detail, she is fortunate indeed if she does not soon lose all her charm and three-quarters of her intelligence [p. 147].” Husbands and children find her company to be problematic. She is so aware of all that she has given up for her children that she demands a repayment of which they are incapable. The paradox is that by performing her domestic duties faithfully she loses the affection of her husband and children – affections which would not have been threatened by a carefree neglect of those duties.

Urbanization combined with family life can generate unhappiness. Cities are much more densely packed than before, and cramped apartment dwellers do not have a yard (or simply the great outdoors) in which the children can play. So parents in cities have a hard time escaping the noise of children, whereas suburban life involves a happiness-threatening commute to work for the father and his marginalization in his family’s lives.

The movement from master-slave relationships towards democracy, even within the family, has undermined traditional roles and created some uncertainty about proper behaviors. Obedience of children towards parents is no longer taken for granted. Psychoanalysis has rendered parents fearful that whatever they do, they will be psychologically scarring their offspring; the “simple and natural happiness [p. 150]” of family life is compromised. Wealthier, more civilized, and more intelligent people become less likely to have children, though the uncivilized remain relatively fruitful. Western nations will be seeing their populations fall, except to the extent that immigration compensates for the natural decrease. Civilizations that cannot reproduce are unstable, and will find their places usurped by those who multiply. Governments and clergymen can exhort all they want, but the blandishments of neither patriotism nor holiness are particularly successful at inducing breeding. Ignorance of how to prevent pregnancy can be an effective spur to population growth, and governments do their best to spread this ignorance, but this, too, is a losing battle. Parenthood will only be popular if the interest (that is, happiness) of the parents can be enlisted into the cause.

As a general proposition, being a parent can provide the best and most lasting happiness, for men almost as well as for women. Russell recounts his own experience: “…speaking personally, I have found the happiness of parenthood greater than any other that I have experienced [p. 153].” People who pass up this happiness develop a profound listlessness. As you get older, happiness requires that you are not atomized, but are “part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future [p. 153].” Perhaps a lasting work product can produce the same feeling of connection, but for most folks, children are the only means. Without children, your interests appear to be limited to your lifespan, lending a sense of futility to any endeavor.

Normal parental affection towards one’s children is a different order of feeling than other types of affection – and a similar point seems to apply to non-human animals, too. “If it were not for this special emotion there would be almost nothing to be said for the family as an institution, since children might equally well be left to the care of professionals [p. 155].” Other types of affection tend to be granted conditional on good behavior or good health or what have you – parental affection remains strong even when other claims to affection have been lost. The affection of your parents might not seem all that important when times are good, but at times of failure, it provides an invaluable security.

In human relationships that involve one dominant and one submissive partner, such as employer and employee, securing happiness for the dominant party is relatively easy. The world has become more interested in making these relationships happy for both parties; therefore, parents now draw less happiness from their children, while children suffer less from their parents.

Caring for an infant “gratifies not only the parent’s love towards the child, but also the parent’s desire for power [p. 156].” As the child develops, however, its well-being demands that the parent cede power, allowing the child more independence. Some parents continue to play the tyrant. Other parents validate their child’s claims to independence, but at the cost of their own happiness, as the child chooses directions that do not coincide with parental interests. The parental impulse towards possessiveness is hard to overcome, even when acting upon it does not conduce to the welfare of the child. Parents who recognize this problem become indecisive, and their very uncertainty undermines their value for the child. “Better than being careful, therefore, is to be pure in heart [157].” If you really put your child’s welfare above your own, you can guide your child confidently, and the mistakes that assuredly you will make will not prove costly.

The ingrained respect for a child’s personality that engenders wise parenting also is a necessary attitude for successful marriages and friendships. “In a good world it would pervade the political relations between groups of human beings, though this is so distant a hope that we need not linger over it [p. 158].” The respectful stance greatly adds to parental happiness, as parents with this respect can act in the best interests of their children without seeking the shallow joys of gratifying their desire of power.

Mothers recognize that they are not expected to teach calculus to their children, but they are less willing to contract out other duties of child-rearing, even when specialists are better placed to fulfill these duties. For some months around the birth of a child, perhaps, mothers generally will not be able to continue fulltime in their professional capacities; nevertheless, motherhood and careers should be compatible. If society expects otherwise, the sacrifice required by mothers will be too large, and the mothers themselves will seek excessive emotional compensation from their children. “It is important, therefore, quite as much in the interests of the children as in those of the mother, that motherhood should not cut her off from all other interests and pursuits [p. 160].” Those who are good at child rearing should specialize in it, providing paid services for other parents, many of whom are baffled by the demands of child care. It is almost received wisdom that fathers are not accomplished at child rearing, and there is no shame for them in taking a back seat in such domestic duties. Yet children love their fathers as much as their mothers. It would liberate women and benefit children if mothers similarly could leave many of the tasks of child raising to adept professionals.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 12

Chapter 12 (pages 137-144), “Affection”

Being beloved promotes the zest for life, whereas the feeling of being unloved destroys it. Those who feel unloved might try to win the love of others through extraordinary kindness or generosity, though this tactic is likely to fail: “human nature is so constructed that it gives affection most readily to those who seem least to demand it [p. 137].” Alternatively, those who perceive themselves to be unloved might take revenge upon the world, perhaps through violence, or perhaps, like Jonathan Swift, through a biting satire. The most common response to feeling unloved, however, is to fall into quiet despair, punctuated by bouts of ill feeling towards others. “As a rule, the lives of such people become extremely self-centered and the absence of affection gives them a sense of insecurity from which they instinctively seek to escape by allowing habit to dominate their lives utterly and completely [p. 138].” They seek to stay on their tried and true paths to avoid encountering a hostile world.

A sense of security leads to happiness, unless the feeling of invulnerability induces foolish risk-taking. Even in risky endeavors, like crossing over a chasm on a dodgy bridge, the feeling of security can lower the risk – a similar proposition applies to many types of activities. This useful self-confidence grows out of receiving sufficient, appropriate affection: receiving, not giving, though the symmetric type of affection is the standard case. Admiration works as well as affection in generating zest: public performers who receive admiration keep up their spirits. But for those who cannot call upon the admiration of a large, diffuse crowd, more concentrated affection is required. Children take the affection of their parents for granted -- affection that is essential for their happiness, as it is their guarantee against disaster. Children who lack parental affection do not meet the world with the same optimistic curiosity, and they become gloomy introverts at a young age, later turning to some unsound philosophy or theology to provide an inadequate alternative. The stochastic world does not fit into the deterministic boxes provided by these creeds. Children who receive affection do not have to create an artificial world for the safety they cannot find in the real one.

The appropriate type of affection that produces inquisitive, happy children cannot itself be too focused on safety above new experience. It might be satisfying to a parent to have a child who only feels secure in the vicinity of the parent, but this dependence will have deleterious long-term effects for the child. Adults with such an upbringing seek refuge from reality in their romantic connections, looking for the same unconditional admiration and protection from harsh truths.

We should try to minimize the extent to which our affection for others reflects fears for misfortunes that might befall them. We might use such apprehensions to cloak our own possessiveness. Some men prefer timid women, whom they can control via the provision of protection.

The ability to inspire sexual feelings in someone else is extremely important to the happiness of adults; sexual love provides joy directly, and by sustaining a zest for life, also indirectly aids happiness. Women tend to love men for their characters, while men are more moved by looks. Characters, however, can be unlovable thanks to their deformation from childhood. We probably know better how to foster good looks than good characters.

It is one thing to be beloved; but what about the affection that we have for others? The better type of affection emanates from a person who is confident and secure; the lesser type comes from a need for security. Both types generally are present simultaneously, and both are helpful. Nevertheless, the version of affection that reflects insecurity is far inferior, both because it is a product of fear and because it promotes self-centeredness. “In the best kind of affection a man hopes for a new happiness rather than for escape from an old unhappiness [p. 142].”

Mutual affection can be mutually invigorating. But the benefits of affection also can be wholly one-sided, where one person’s affection comes at the expense of the other person’s vitality. A person who uses his partner to promote his own good, but does not think of how to generate mutual benefits, misses out on one of life’s joys; his ego is his prison.

People are conditioned, through social and private sanction, to be excessively cautious in their bestowal of affection. The result is too little affection in the world, and too much unhappiness. Those who exceed the norm in their bestowal of physical affection are not necessarily better off, however; sex can be undertaken without breaking down the walls of self. “[T]he only sex relations that have real value are those in which there is no reticence and in which the whole personality of both becomes merged in a new collective personality [p. 144].”