Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 17

Chapter 17 (pages 186-191), “The Happy Man”

When it comes to happiness, cause and effect frequently are confused. Neither our adopted creeds nor our intellectualized narratives cause us to be happy or unhappy. “The man who is unhappy will, as a rule, adopt an unhappy creed, while the man who is happy will adopt a happy creed...[p. 186].” There are basic ingredients that are all but pre-requisites for happiness, such as adequate food and shelter, love and respect – for some people, parenthood could be added to the list. With these ingredients in place, unhappiness has a psychological source, which in the usual, not-too-severe cases, can be self-cured – but the self-cure is to lessen self-involvement! Passions to avoid (and to educate people to avoid) in the name of happiness include fear, envy, the sense of sin, self-pity and self-aggrandizement (as discussed in Part One). These passions imprison us in self-focus. Fear nurtures self-deception, but living a life of deceit is precarious and leaves us vulnerable to a massive shock when the truth can no longer be dodged – while the intuitive knowledge of this danger causes apprehension.

“The happy man is the man who lives objectively, who has free affections and wide interests, who secures his happiness through these interests and affections and through the fact that they, in turn, make him an object of interest and affection to many others [p. 188].”

How to escape from the happiness-robbing self-focus? First the cause of self-focus should be diagnosed. If it is a sense of sin, then recognize that cause (and its disconnect from anything actually sinful) in your conscious mind, where this realization can seep into the unconscious. If you are self-centered due to self-pity, or out of fear, then these conditions can be understood and combated, too. Outside interests then will emerge spontaneously.

There is substantial overlap between a good life and a happy life. Moralists who teach that a good life is about self-denial generate a self-centeredness (in carefully watching over your appetites) that redounds to neither happiness nor goodness. There needn’t be such a sharp distinction between an individual and everyone else. Broad interests connect individuals with the “stream of life [p. 191].” A healthy, but not excessive, interest in your own well-being promotes happiness in yourself and in others. Unhappiness arises when a person is internally disjointed (with a chasm between the conscious and unconscious mind) or externally disconnected, cut off from society. “The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world [p. 191].” Even death engenders no dread for someone who is instinctively connected to the ongoing parade of life.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 16

Chapter 16 (pages 178-185), “Effort and Resignation”

The golden mean is a banal concept, but there is wisdom in it, including in its application to the question of whether you should exert effort or resign from worldly matters. Happiness generally requires attention (hence “conquest”), given all the problems and misfortunes of this world. The necessary attention involves some outward effort -- and perhaps some inward effort to inculcate resignation.

Effort is needed to earn your daily bread, but happiness also requires a feeling of success that a subsistence income alone will not provide. Income has become a measure of success; only a small percentage of people can achieve relatively large incomes, however, suggesting a helpful degree of resignation with respect to earnings. A desirable marriage might require effort, especially for the gender that is in the majority. Successfully raising children is quite an operose undertaking.

“[O]ne may say that some kind of power forms the normal and legitimate aim of every person whose natural desires are not atrophied [p. 181].” The power over others that is sought varies with one’s disposition –- perhaps power over thoughts, actions, emotions, or the power to mitigate pain. The desire for power is intertwined with the spur to the appropriate effort, and harnessing this passion and effort for good ends helps build society.

But passion can be an obstacle to success, especially if the fear of failure becomes a source of excessive anxiety. A temperate resignation to the possibility of failure and to unpreventable misfortune is helpful. “The attitude required is that of doing one’s best while leaving the issue to fate [p. 182].” The paralyzing resignation of despair must be avoided, but the resignation associated with hopes that are larger than our narrowly personal ends is helpful. A researcher who yearns for scientific progress may not achieve that progress personally, but can avoid despair if the larger enterprise moves ahead.

Russell provides a sort of compartmentalization story for how he believes the desirable type of resignation should operate. If your marriage turns unhappy, you shouldn’t let it interfere with your (important) work. Oh well, you presumably say, these things happen, and in the meantime, I have work to do.

Some people work themselves into a lather over trivialities, like their laundry being delayed or a train missed. Wise people handle these minor problems (they needn’t ignore them) without an expenditure of emotion. Perhaps irritable or anxious people cannot overcome their emotional roadblocks, short of dedicating themselves to a larger, impersonal enterprise which will render minor matters less meaningful. “The man who has become emancipated from the empire of worry will find life a much more cheerful affair than it used to be while he was perpetually being irritated [p. 184].” He takes a detached, almost ironic approach to the inevitable trials of everyday life. Allow yourself a multiplicity of views of yourself. Do not be consistently a hero in a tragedy, nor a comic clown, but take on many roles, if you cannot be entirely detached.

Your effort to succeed at a task will not be undone by a dose of humor or by a healthy understanding of the relative unimportance of the enterprise. In the long-run, self-deception will undermine the quality of the work, and perhaps even turn it to bad ends. “Half the useful work in the world consists of combating the harmful work [p. 185].” Facing the truth about ourselves is painful at first, but an eventual salvation. “Nothing is more fatiguing nor, in the long run, more exasperating than the daily effort to believe things which daily become more incredible [p. 185].”