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.

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