The Conquest of Happiness

The English writer, mathemetician and philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote The Conquest of Happiness in 1930. It was written for a general audience. It has aged well.


Russell was upper-class English gentleman, and a political radical in his day. His writing reflects some of the popular language, cultural assumptions, and radicalism of his day. He was a supporter of women’s rights, but his view of the role and capabilities of women was more Victorian than modern. He was impressed with possibilities of Freudian analysis for explaining human behaviour. His biographers say that he was prolific, writing 3,000 words a day, and often published without editing or rewriting. This book displays a kind of breezy stream of consciousness approach, but the author is organized, forceful and opinionated to the point of arrogance.
He says that as a teenager he was unhappy, to the point of suicide, but he doesn’t attribute any changes in his attitude and thinking to any particular psychological system or technique. His approach is informed by the same devotion to common sense that seems to inform Engish analytic philosophy. He starts with questioning why people in an affluent society, unburdened by privation and warfare are unhappy. He makes his project clear in an early passage: “unhappiness … is due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness … depends.” His project is greater happiness through realistic self-awareness and liberation from moral and cultural restraints.
Many writers on happiness still advertently or inadvertently draw on a tradition that goes back to the ethical writings of the later Greek philosophers and try to base happiness on living in a ideal way, according to an ideal system of living. The tend to equate the highest happiness with living the good or moral life. Russell’s approach is more empirical, liberal and analytical. In his History of Western Philosophy, he is critical of modern thinker who consciously or unconsciously attempt to recreate the social lives of the small Greek cities as they existed before the adventures of Alexander the Great and the Roman empire. He thinks the Greek philosophers tended to take their culturally determined ideas of a happy life and a good society and build universal systems on them or to idealize them. He thinks the Greeks, particularly the neo-Platonist and their Christian followers, ignored the here and now and created unhappiness by teaching people to try to live a life that pleases priests and kings.
Russell, like his god-father John Stuart Mill, and the utilitarians, has a different sense of happiness and natural pleasure than the Greeks and the Christians.
He begins by arguing that many people are unhappy because they are self-absorbed. He means occupied with how they relate to society. They are obsessed with being charming or with maintaining power, or burdened with a sense of sin. There is a Freudian tone to this section, but the essential argument is ethical – an adult in a free society can make choices which are not dictated by a learned sense of what is nice or culturally appropriate. He moves on to criticize cultural attitudes which reinforce discontent with the pleasures of everyday life. He refers to “Byronic Unhappiness” to describe a set of different problems with common elements. He suggests that the boredom or ennui of the cynical, decadent and affluent, and the distaste for modern culture felt by social conservatives and religious people both reflect a disengagement from the real world.
His advice for happiness – a healthy sense of one’s self, a realistic sense of one’s talents, remaining engaged with satisfying work and hobbies, staying busy with challenging projects, zest, and affection.
Zest is his all-purpose term for being interested in and engaged with life, savouring experiences. His idea of zest might be mistaken for positive thinking, learned optimism and other theories of learning to be happy. Zest is an attitude of happy satisfaction which can’t learned or earned simply by cultivating a happy attitude. Zest is a value in itself – a joyful discovery of life. Zest comes from living with a sense of freedom and self-confidence. Positive thinking and learned optimism aim to teach people to change their attitude. They are instrumental techniques for relating to one’s self and other people by projecting cheerfulness and optimism.
His chapters on affection and family span friendship, love, marriage and family. They tend, like the rest of the book, to a degree of rambling and inconsistency. He identifies a deep basic need for affection. He maintains that affection can’t be created at will or bargained for. It comes from need, companionship, and empathy. He has some interesting things to say about boundaries and self-possession. He isn’t particularly romantic, and he tends to advise against self-sacrificing forms of affection. He suggests that romantic and self-sacrificing forms of affection are often based in a self-serving moralism rather than honest altruism.
In the final chapter he says that happy men live objectively, with deep affections and wide interests. His comment about living objectively is a complex, layered statement. He cautioned readers about being too self-absorbed, and about having real sense of their talents and limitations. At another point, he advised readers to be able to stay busy to avoid becoming preoccupied and depressed about things that they can’t control or change. Given his hostility to the Christian religion(s) he may also have been advising readers to base moral decisions on reason, rather than on faith. He did not attack religion directly in this book, although many passages encourage readers to take a non-religious path.
In spite of its dated language and rambling style, I think it’s a much better book than any modern psychological self-help book on happiness.

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