Bertrand Russell on Happiness & Unhappiness

Thoughts on happiness and unhappiness from one of the twentieth century's most notable philosophers, mathematicians, and activists.

I was doing some research about eighteen months ago for a series of articles on the nature of happiness, and material came my way from mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. If you have not heard of him before, here’s a very brief introduction;

Bertrand A.W. Russell was a British philosopher born in London to an aristocratic family in 1872. His parents died when he and his brother were young and both were subsequently sent to live with their grandfather, former Prime Minister, Earl Russell. Bertrand Russell began his academic career at Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied under Alfred North Whitehead becoming a distinguished mathematician and philosopher. Russell was the quintessential polymath renowned for his work on mathematical logic, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and computer science.

He was an essayist and social critic however he was perhaps best known for his work in mathematical logic and analytic philosophy. His famous paradox, theory of types and work with Alfred North Whitehead in Principia Mathematica re-energised the study of logic in the twentieth century. In the public mind, he was as famous for his commentary on religion and God, for his activism during both World Wars and his outspokenness against nuclear armament and support for the rights of minorities.

On Sources of Unhappiness

Russell believed unhappiness was everywhere etched on the faces of everyone he met. “Human beings”, he said, “ought to be happy, but in the modern world, they are not–at least in a great majority of cases”. And I’d be inclined to agree with Russell here. Rather than life being ordinarily good with only spatterings bad, it seems to be the other way around. At best, life seems to be tolerable. Instead of happiness, we pursue pleasure, pleasure in entertainment, alcohol, and various other means of self-medication from the dullness of life. We are completely absorbed in distraction tactics — anything to avoid seeing ourselves for what we really are.

“Though the kinds are different, you will find that unhappiness meets you everywhere. Stand in a busy street during working hours, or on a main thoroughfare at a week-end, or at a dance of an evening; empty your mind of your own ego and let the personalities of strangers about you take possession of you one after another. You will find that each of these different crowds has its own trouble.”

Russell speaks of the importance we have placed on the creation of wealth. But what use is wealth, he asks, if everyone rich is miserable? The purpose of The Conquest of Happiness1, Russell says, was to propose a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilised society suffer regardless of wealth or social status.

“I believe this unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to the destruction of that natural zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men of animals, ultimately depends.”

From his autobiography, we read that Bertrand Russell contemplated suicide regularly in his teenage years, such was his depression at the prospect of living without purpose. The only thing that prevented him from taking the ultimate step was his obsession with mathematics. Reflecting on this period in his later life, he reported loving life more and more with each passing year. Despite his wealth and social privilege, he appeared to suffer just like you and I do, but the force to live and understand the world was stronger for him than the drive for death. I would say that a report on happiness coming from an individual who has been on the brink only to come back, has greater value than that of someone who has not been where he was.

He attributes his recovery from this depressive state to the removal of his focus from himself. That is; his focus on his deficiencies. He says;

But very largely, it [love of life] is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies, and shortcomings. I seemed to myself — no doubt justly — a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies.”

On The Cure For Unhappiness

Russell goes on to say that the only way to recover from a negative preoccupation with oneself is to become occupied in the world. He recognises external interests can bring discomfort and disappointment, but these kinds of pains do not disrupt, necessarily, the essential quality of life as those that come from self-deprivation and self-flagellation. He says that happiness for those whose self-absorption is too profound to be cured can only be achieved through external discipline.

Russell cites many and varied sources of unhappiness but suggests that the most profound is our preoccupation with distraction through the pursuit of hedonic pleasure. Alcohol, drugs, sex, social media, TV programs that heighten our sense of isolation and powerlessness; are a means to make the apparently unbearable bearable.

As long as we continue to obsess over why we are unhappy, Russell says, we remain self-absorbed and therefore create a vicious circle. If we are to get ourselves outside it, we must find something that commands our curiosity and absorbs our interests.

“…it must be by genuine interests, not by simulated interests adopted merely as a medicine. What those objective interests are to be that will arise in you when you have overcome the disease of self-absorption must be left the spontaneous workings of your nature na of external circumstances.”

Sounds to me like he’s suggesting that we just follow our curiosity and go with the flow. Instead of doing what is expected of us or what we think we should be doing, we should pursue the interests that arise in us from simply being alive.

Russell finishes The Conquest of Happiness by suggesting that through engagement in naturally occurring interests, we come to feel ourselves part of the stream of life, and not something hard and separate such as a billiard ball. All unhappiness, he says, depends upon some form of disintegration or lack of integration; a schism within the self, or the self and that of society. The happy person is not a divided subject, nor are they isolated from and at odds with the objective world.

“The secret of happiness is very simply this; let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”

My View Hasn’t Changed

There’s nothing profound in this book for me, and my view on happiness and unhappiness haven’t changed as a result of reading it. I have found that happiness does not exist at either end of an imaginary spectrum. We can’t find it in any other human being, in books or any material source outside us. Instead, it comes about in the personal experience and engagement in things that stir our curiosity. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel difficulty and challenge in it or in the pursuit of related goals. On the contrary, those experiences are what make it worthwhile.

Russell is accurate, I think, in that preoccupation with what we don’t have perpetuates it. If we feel unhappy, we’ve got to somehow take ourselves out of that circular pattern and into something else. We are sense-making organisms you see, and it is in the patterns of data that we find sense, happiness and unhappiness.

1

Russell, B. (2015). The conquest of happiness. Routledge.