Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Full Time

Perhaps the main theme of Part Two (“Causes of Happiness”) is the importance of being connected to the stream of life. (My halftime report on Part One is here.) Children and work are the usual vehicles for achieving this connection.

My favorite chapter of Part Two is Chapter 15, “Impersonal Interests.” (My favorite chapter in Part One is Chapter 8, “Persecution Mania”; I am worried about what these preferences say about me!) One of the features of the Russellian view that stands out is the recognition of fairly severe limits on the extent of human altruism that can be expected. People are willing to sacrifice for their family and friends, but as the degree of separation increases, the philanthropic impulse decreases considerably. Russell notes how requiring substantial sacrifices even for one’s children – as by mothers who must give up careers for their families – is a recipe for unhappiness. Compared to Peter Singer, for example, Bertrand Russell elucidates a sort of moral code that is easier to implement, and therefore I suppose I want to believe that it also is closer to being correct – though I possess no intellectual refutation of Singer’s more demanding morality. How (comparatively) liberating for the conventionally selfish is Russell’s notion that the counsels of a hedonist and that of a “sane moralist [p. 190]” should essentially be identical!

In the Preface, Russell announces his belief that by “well-directed effort,” many people who are unhappy could become happy. In Part Two, he adumbrates more fully his views on how that effort should be directed. One of the curiosities of the recommended behavior is that it can’t really be pointed squarely at happiness; rather, happiness is sort of a beneficial side effect of efforts made for other reasons. Taking direct aim at happiness is apt to result in perverse consequences. You need affection to be happy – but if you express that need too openly, other people will withhold affection. You must take delight in others to be happy, but if you try to simulate delight, they will sense that you are merely tolerating them, and again your plan will be thwarted. You need the admiration of others to be satisfied, but if securing admiration is the motivation for your work, you will achieve neither admiration nor satisfaction. Friends are requisite for happiness, but excessive kindness or generosity directed towards winning friends will backfire. You need success to be happy, but if success comes too easily, it will not bring happiness. Even to focus too intently on how to cure your unhappiness is apt to make you inner-directed, and thereby cut off your opportunities for contentment.

The happiness arena is replete with virtuous circles, while the unhappiness realm is a slough of despond, from which it is hard to extricate yourself. If you are unhappy you will (1) lack zest which will (2) tend to make you unlovable which will (3) probably make you introspective, and then conditions (1), (2), and (3) will make you unhappy… and so on. If you are happy you will (1) be zestful and you will (2) take a lively interest in people and things and you will (3) approach your work with more energy which will (4) tend to make you successful, and then conditions (1) through (4) will make you happy… and so on. Switching from the vicious circle to the virtuous circle seems to me to be extremely hard, even if one scrupulously tries to apply Russell’s “well-directed effort.” For people near the margin of happiness, the Russellian approach would seem to have much to offer. But how common are those folks at the margin? In the final chapter, Russell suggests that his self-help plan can overcome garden-variety unhappiness, while severe cases might require professional assistance. The strongly reinforcing nature of the vicious circle, however, makes me suspect that the typical unhappiness is that which Russell considers severe, and unlikely to be adjusted even by a good faith effort to implement his advice. Russell does a better job of identifying the features and correlates of happiness (and unhappiness) than he does at providing a recipe for making lemonade out of (perceived) lemons.

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