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].”

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