EducationMental Health

Happiness & “The Conquest of Happiness”


Happiness is fickle. Gone in an instant. However long we think it may last, it just doesn’t (see hedonic treadmill). Hence the endless search for it. But the chicken and egg question persists: Will we find happiness if we search for it, or will it chance upon us in the midst of a journey, even without our active seeking?

“In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.”

– Bertrand Russell

This is not a psychology book. As such, it should not be viewed from a scientific lens. And for those inclined to seek out a book on the research of happiness, with more solid scientific back-up, check out “Happiness by Design”, by Paul Dolan.

“The Conquest of Happiness” is written by Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, who wrote a bunch of books on a wide variety of subjects: Religion, Morality, Education, Sexuality etc. For these, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. And it is his sharp insight on society (though more relevant to the mid 20th century, some remain timeless), as well as his wisdom, on full display in this book, that warrants your time.

Happiness in modern times

To know about happiness, one must understand the inverse: that of unhappiness. What makes us unhappy?

Russell mentioned several issues, commonplace in our times, that plagued our current condition. That of envy, boredom, persecution mania, the sense of committing a sin, etc.

Envy: We are unhappy because we covet that which we don’t have.

Boredom: We are unfulfilled because modernity has taken away the pleasures of work with its technology, and its eagerness to provide instant gratification. Thus, we are bored and have to seek more and more.

Persecution mania: We fear for our lives, our standing in society, our money, our fame, our fortune. When our lives are governed by the desire for more, and the fear of not losing anything, how are we to be content, to be happy?

Sense of committing a sin: (This is more relevant to Russell’s era, as our age embraces a more secular worldview, but still…) Religion, traditional morality, conservatism. All of these led to our fear of doing harm. We dare not speak our minds, or seek freedom, for fear of offending our forebears. We dare not masturbate or talk candidly about sex, because religion deems it sinful to lust, because it is taboo. So again, how can we be happy, when we are not even free?

(Un)Happiness in Perspective

There is a common theme that links together all these “Russellian” factors of unhappiness. That of the refusal to see reality as it is, a thwarted and distorted outlook in life.

For example, if I am a megalomaniac, perceiving myself as important, perhaps I will see my work as crucial to the advancement of society. Then, whenever I encounter an obstacle, I will be more likely to blame others for my own failures. Furthermore, I will also be envious of those that are more successful than me, ad infinitum.

Perhaps, the sense of sin is one of the most crucial factor of unhappiness. Because if I constantly feel myself as guilty, would I ever be happy? And wasn’t this constant sense of being sinful also a form of megalomania? Seeking attention in the form of repentance? 

Our age is an age of unhappiness, where people fret over every failure, and refuse to see the few moments where we truly shine. Kierkegaard once said in “The Present Age”, “ours is an age of reflection, not of passion”. Everyone is obsessed with their own shortcomings, and they suffered for every mistake they made. We judge others. And we judge ourselves. Thus, the vicious cycle continues.

A recipe for happiness

Russell’s factors of happiness are simple. Commit yourself to a project, a job, and be enthusiastic about it. We can seek to build constructive and close relationships with others,  to regain the zest for life. It sounds so simple, and it is. But at the same time, it is hard. Once we lose all sense of perspective, the normal things in live will seem unreal or impossible to attain.

Russell never claimed to have found a profound way of living, a new theory of happiness. Which is unlike many self-help books nowadays, with their empty promises of changing your life with 7 tips, or that “travel is the best way to know yourself”. (In short, “The Conquest of Happiness” is how popular self-help and philosophy books should be written.)

He merely said what he had experienced, what he had observed through life. Because these are such common notions, we are oblivious to them. We perceive ourselves as always having them, thinking they are so easy to obtain. And so we no longer make an effort to MAKE ourselves happy, as it doesn’t matter to us anymore.

The zest for life

Happiness and unhappiness. To live or to wait. No one can claim to know it all beforehand. One has to experience them, in full. And the experiences accumulate. And then we see, once more, with fresh eyes, at the world, larger than before, more beautiful than ever. Perhaps, to be happy is to plumb the depths of suffering, and yet emerge whole.  

On the conquest of happiness, to make ourselves “happy” is to be passionate. That is, to be filled with the zest for life, have close relationships with others, work with enthusiasm. Then, there is the ability to rationally dissect our own distorted worldview of depression and unhappiness. We must be objective, never self-centered, and be purged of the obsession with the ego.

One sets out on the journey to find happiness. And it is likely that we will never find it in the end. But we might as well enjoy the view while we are at it. We can be content with what we have, with what is given to us in our short time on this earth.

And perhaps we are wrong, and that includes Russell as well. It is not “The Conquest of Happiness” that matters as much.

It is “The Happiness of Conquest”.

“If one lived for ever the joys of life would inevitably in the end lose their savor. As it is, they remain perennially fresh.”

– Bertrand Russell

Viktor Frankl once said in “Man’s Search for Meaning”, that we achieve meaning while we are in pursuit of something, not while meaning itself is the goal of the pursuit.
To make what we seek as a direct goal, is to fail miserably. And in the process, we will make ourselves more and more miserable as we perceive our failures. 
This, I think, is the same with happiness. Happiness must always be a side-product of a project, a relationship, or work. Instead of viewing happiness as a goal to pursue, an end in itself, we should view happiness as an ingredient in life.
For more book reviews, read our article on the power of introverts.
Jason Hew
Jason Hew is a graduate of HELP University in the Bachelor's Degree in Psychology. One of MY Psychology's founding members, he wrote screenplays and articles for MY Psychology ever since its inception. He currently works as the center manager and administrator for MY Psychology's Center. Still writes occasionally. Born in Petaling Jaya, lived in Shah Alam and Klang, moved to Penang, and moved back to Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur, he just went full circle, and he considers himself more so a citizen of the highway. He lives in Malaysia.

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