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].”

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