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The Human Condition

Can We Be Happy?

Kathleen O’Dwyer sets out to conquer herself, with help from Bertrand Russell.

Human beings desire to be happy! This seemingly simple proposition may be accepted as definitive and certain. In fact, the desire for happiness seems paramount. Of course, happiness is subjective, and is interpreted differently according to each person’s understanding and the external circumstances. For some, the concept of happiness may be based predominantly on self: self-preservation, self-protection, self-satisfaction, self-promotion; for some, it may be focused on others – the well-being, safety, or joy of one’s loved ones, or even of mankind in general. Mostly these two elements of focus, self and others, are intertwined, albeit in different proportions at different times: even someone selfish can scarcely be happy if their loved ones are suffering. However, it ultimately comes down to the question: what makes me feel happy? Many if not all of our decisions, thoughts, plans, hopes, desires and actions are propelled by this question on some essential level. In his reflections on the purpose of human life, Sigmund Freud concluded that apart from a religious perspective, life has no intrinsic meaning. However, this does not mean that individuals don’t reveal intentions and purposes through their behaviour. From observing their behaviour, Freud concluded that the pursuit of happiness is the intention of all people: “What do they demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive for happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.” (The Freud Reader: 1995, p.729.) However, the fluid and emotional nature of the experience of happiness results in ambiguities concerning the concept which must inspire philosophical reflections which question Freud’s tautology. What is happiness?

Commonly accepted definitions of ‘happiness’ include: a feeling of well-being – physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological; a feeling or a belief that one’s needs are being met – or at least that one has the power to strive towards the satisfaction of the most significant of such needs; a feeling that one is being authentic in the living of one’s life and in one’s relations with significant others; a feeling that one is using one’s potential as far as this is possible; a feeling that one is contributing to life in some way – that one’s life is making a difference. It seems that happiness is, above all, a ‘feeling’! Also underlying all these interpretations is a sense of ‘enjoyment’ – a sense that one is joyfully creating and living a good life, however ‘the good life’ is construed by the subject. These definitions also commonly involve reference to the role of values such as purpose and service in the attainment of happiness.

The reality of unhappiness is attested to by the ongoing proliferation of books, courses, advice and medication which purport to alleviate the sources of personal unhappiness, therefore enabling a greater capacity for joy and harmony. Whatever the cause of the unhappiness, there is a book out there claiming to ‘cure it in twelve easy steps’, or some such promise. The success of these enterprises is of course debatable, not least because testimonials to their success are inevitably selective. Yet the demand for happiness persists, and responses to it continually strive to be creative and original while simultaneously claiming reliable and demonstrable efficacy.

The Politics Of Happiness

As far back as 1930, the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell put forward his own reflections on the question of happiness, in particular, on how it might be attained and enjoyed. His book The Conquest of Happiness contains a clear, logically-constructed argument outlined in two sections: ‘Causes of Unhappiness’ and ‘Causes of Happiness’. The simplicity of this structure is noted by contemporary philosopher A.C. Grayling in his preface to a recent Routledge edition of the book: “some of the deepest truths are simple.” Grayling summarizes the central message of the book as the seemingly obvious but often forgotten dictum that “happiness is gained by being outward-looking in work and relationships, and lost by being wrapped-up in oneself, dwelling on anxieties and fears.”

Russell claims that his ‘recipes’ for happiness are inspired by common sense, and he hopes that these recipes may help “many people who are unhappy… become happy.” But he acknowledges the central limitation of this endeavour: that happiness “depends partly upon external circumstances and partly upon oneself” (p.171), and this book doesn’t attempt to deal with the suffering and unhappiness sourced in circumstances beyond the control of the individual. Poverty, illness, cruelty and fear are serious considerations in any analysis of (un)happiness, and Russell reminds us that he has dealt with such issues, in particular considering “the changes in the social system required to promote happiness” in his other works.

The complex relationship between the social system and the well-being of the individual, physical and psychological, is analysed by Freud in his essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, also published in 1930. Freud claims that the demands of civilized society are often in conflict with the desires of the individual. Thus, “the price we pay for cultural progress is a loss of happiness, arising from a heightened sense of guilt” (p.71). More recently, the work of controversial psychoanalyst R.D. Laing focused on the impact of environmental factors on mental health, and on the false dichotomy between sanity and insanity: “Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal” So, like Freud, Laing asserts that society is inimical to individual happiness: “What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience.” (The Politics of Experience, pps.27,28, 1967). Adjustment to the prevailing social norms is considered essential to mental health and human flourishing; but Laing warns us that “social adaptation to a dysfunctional society may be very dangerous” (p.129).

Russell is similarly concerned with “the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable because, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable” (Happiness, p.5). In contemporary terms, Russell is perhaps describing a common discontent, a pervasive feeling of dissatisfaction which cannot be easily explained or understood by reference to any direct cause. He considers this unhappiness to be a widespread experience, a general malaise, which in varying ways prevents an enthusiastic and joyful engagement with the adventure of life, and points to an underlying disappointment with one’s life or oneself. This sadness is made all the more paralysing because of the sense of powerlessness which accompanies it. Russell addresses this sense of powerlessness as a major obstacle to the attainment of happiness. Thus the individual must consider the options which “lie within the power of the individual” and are not dependent on external factors. A belief in the possibility of self-empowerment is the starting point on Russell’s road-map towards happiness and fulfilment.

The Sinner, The Narcissist & The Megalomaniac

To understand how to get to happiness, Russell considers his own experience of depression and anxiety in his early years, and concludes that his use of reason and argument was useless for changing those moods. Rather, he ascribes his success in transcending these painful and restrictive modes of being to two simultaneous changes: “a diminishing preoccupation with myself” and an increasing focus of his attention on external interests (p.6). Like physical energy, mental or emotional energy is of a limited supply, and its concentrated use on one area of attention results in a depletion of resources available for other interests. Thus, excessive self-absorption saps the energy which could otherwise be directed towards more fruitful and more enjoyable experiences. Russell suggests three examples of self-absorption, which he labels ‘the sinner’, ‘the narcissist’ and ‘the megalomaniac’. All three are focused almost exclusively on the self, and all three are committed to a world-view which is narrow and distorted.

‘The sinner’ is someone who is preoccupied with the idea of sinfulness; he sees everywhere the possibility and temptation to do wrong, and he is in perpetual conflict between his natural impulses and the image of moral perfection he’s striving to fulfil. The attempt at perfection is doomed to failure, and so ‘the sinner’ is a constant disappointment to himself. Guilt and resentment are the prevailing conditions of a life so construed – guilt relating to the sense of wrong-doing and failure, resentment at the perceived restrictions which inevitably preclude enjoyment and pleasure. There is little opportunity for joy in a world which is perceived with such a sense of judgment and such a lack of (self-)compassion and understanding.

At first glance, ‘the narcissist’ appears to be at the opposite end of the personality spectrum to that of ‘the sinner’. He has an inflated image of himself, his importance, his needs, and his rights. The motive propelling all his pursuits is the desire for admiration. Of course, this desire can never be fully satisfied either, and consequently the narcissist is constantly defeated in his attempts to attain continual praise for his achievements. Furthermore, because the aim of his activities, at work, in relationships, or in creative pursuits, is the admiration of others, his attention is never really focused on the present moment and its experience. Thus he foregoes any enjoyment or fulfilment which could accrue from a passionate engagement with his chosen activity.

Similarly, ‘the megalomaniac’ is not interested in positive experience for its own sake, but is instead driven by a desire for power. Yet power is always relative and never stable; its pursuit is unending, as its momentary attainment is always vulnerable to fresh threats. Thus megalomania also yields unhappiness.

Russell sees the characteristics, motivations and experiences of these three examples as common to all individuals. We all harbour doubts and resentments regarding our goodness or our enjoyment of life: we are all ‘sinners’ in some respects. We all enjoy and sometimes crave the admiration of others: we are all ‘narcissists’ in this regard. We also all strive, openly or secretly, to be in positions of power whereby our values, our needs, or what we consider our rights, are promoted. But Russell is considering an extreme preoccupation with these concerns which leaves little or no energy for other interests – where the focus on the attainment of one’s desire, whether to be good, to be admired, or to be powerful – is maintained at the expense of savouring the experiences of life for themselves. Such obsession sacrifices the pleasures and possibilities of the journey for the sake of an unpredictable and often disappointing destination. Russell warns that “The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one. There can be no value in the whole unless there is value in the parts.” (p.17.) Self-absorption is thus self-defeating, because it closes off an engagement with external sources of fulfilment, and also because it is devoted to the realization of a doomed fantasy.

Russell goes on to point out more specific obstacles to happiness. Many of his examples reflect an obsessive concern with the opinions of others. Competition, envy, comparison and resentment tend to dominate the concerns of an individual who sees life as a contest, where every engagement and activity is part of a test in which they constantly judge themselves in terms of success and failure. This attitude occurs in many areas: career, financial conditions and material possessions are often considered symbols of one’s success in life. However, these aspects of one’s life are not permanently stable; and this is also true with regard to the fortunes of others. Thus, if one situates oneself in relation to others, one discovers that one’s sense of superiority (or inferiority) is built on fragile ground. As Max Ehrmann warns in his classic prescription for a good life, Desiderata, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter / for always there will be greater and lesser people than yourself.” The logic of Ehrmann’s argument is incontestable; but logic is not always triumphant in the minds and hearts of human beings. A major source of our sense of self is the recognition we receive from others. According to Russell, our conscious or unconscious dependence on the reflection of others is the source of the competitiveness and comparison which pervades all areas of our lives, including our personal relationships and leisure activities. The fear of failure, that is, of being negatively perceived by others, is a major obstacle to the conquest of happiness.

Get Out Of Yourself More

Russell believes that underlying all the obstacles to happiness he has outlined is an exclusive concern with self. This self-absorption may be disguised through the expression of attitudes or a commitment to activities which appear to be outwardly focused, although the motives relate back to one’s preoccupation with oneself. Therefore Russell advocates the development of genuine interests which are valued for themselves and which involve an immersion that precludes self-preoccupation and negativity: “The secret of happiness is 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” he says on p.109. This orientation leads to happiness because it generates a feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves – we feel that we are ‘part of the stream of life’: “The whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world… disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves.” (p.175). Russell looks to the experience of young children to support his claim that happiness and engaged interest are interlinked, as young childrens’ happy engaged interest with everything they encounter has not yet been dulled by familiarity or boredom. However, Russell believes that one can choose to re-ignite that openness and curiosity, to arouse an interest in a wide array of people, activities, ideas or hobbies. He also stresses the need for a variety of interests rather than a narrow preoccupation with a single focus: “The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has, and the less he is at the mercy of fate, since if he loses one thing he can fall back upon another” (p.112). Roles, careers, material circumstances and personal relationships are never static or secure, and an exclusive emotional investment in any one area of life results in major difficulties in the event of its loss. By contrast, it is a feature of happy people that they find many ordinary experiences and everyday involvements worthwhile and meaningful.

Zest and Honesty

Russell describes the experience of happiness as a ‘zest’ for life. The word immediately conjures up images of enthusiasm – a healthy appetite for and energized engagement with life. In agreement with many philosophical and psychological analyses, Russell notes the connection between a zestful approach to living and the experience of being loved: “One of the chief causes of lack of zest is the feeling that one is unloved, whereas conversely the feeling of being loved promotes zest more than anything else does.” (p.122.) Acceptance, recognition, respect, mutuality and intimacy foster a life-loving confidence in the individual who feels loved. It is interesting that Russell stresses that it is the individual’s perception or ‘feeling’ of being loved or not loved which determines one’s capacity for zest: our subjective perceptions, of ourselves, of others and of our relationships, strongly influence our capacity for happiness. Yet the lenses through which we view reality are not always reliable. Therefore Russell urges us to take the risks inherent in loving and being loved, risks involving insecurity and vulnerability, because in our search only for certainty and security we may miss the possibility: “Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness” he warns on p.129.

Acceptance of reality – of self, of others and of life – involves the capacity to live with uncertainty, since life is uncertain. Russell urges this acceptance at work, in relationships and with ourselves. When our plans and projects fail to work out in accordance with our wishes, Russell recommends a resignation to the present failure and a focus on other areas of possibility. With this approach, our activities are undertaken for their own sake, and are not beset by fear regarding the future outcome. We are thus “emancipated from the empire of worry” (p.168). He differentiates between active acceptance and passive defeatism, and suggests that one’s general approach should involve “the balance between effort and resignation” (p.162). In this sense, one’s effort is the key to satisfaction, not the outcome: happiness flows from an attitude of “doing one’s best while leaving the issue to fate.” (p.166).

A discernment of truth releases energy otherwise squandered in fantasy or denial: “Nothing is more fatiguing, nor, in the long run, more exasperating, than the daily effort to believe things which daily become more incredible.” (p.169). As an antidote to the paralysis of illusion and self-deception, Russell recommends an on-going effort to face the truth about ourselves and our lives. He suggests that an honest awareness of our limitations frees us from the tyranny of perfectionism, whether this is directed towards ourselves or to others: “Admit to yourself every day at least one painful truth” he says on p.173. This does not preclude an appreciation of the real successes and achievements in our lives; rather, it ensures that our energy is directed towards the possibility of new opportunities, in the way that a door closed is an invitation to the opening of another. Russell refers to this kind of resignation as an attitude of “unconquerable hope” (p.162). It is a hope which survives in the face of loss or failure because it is based on an understanding that life is made up of many diverse areas of fulfilment.

Can We Be Happy?

Russell’s outline of the obstacles to happiness, and his guide to its attainment, is simple and clear. His focus on the benefits of external sources of interest is echoed in many contemporary explorations of happiness – for example, in Martin Seligman’s concept of ‘Positive Psychology’ with its emphasis on benign emotions such as ‘gratitude’ and ‘appreciation’. In works with ‘positive’ titles such asLearned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (2006) or Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (2002), Seligman outlines the transformation of ‘learned helplessness’ into ‘learned optimism’ as the surest route to the attainment of ‘authentic’ happiness. Like Russell, Seligman proposes that old habits of thought and behaviour can be replaced by more beneficial patterns.

However, questions remain as to whether The Conquest of Happiness provides a helpful response to the query, ‘how can we be happy?’, or whether it is merely another attempt to guide the individual towards a more rewarding life. Can this guidance really come from outside you, or is it only possible through insight gained from experience? Furthermore, is Russell’s idea of happiness and unhappiness universally applicable? Does it address the difficulty pertaining to a definition of happiness, which ranges across a spectrum of experiences such as pleasure, joy, satisfaction, success, virtue, and achievement? Happiness is something we each have a sense of, but which we may find we cannot describe or define logically.

Russell believed that human beings are capable of happiness if they follow his recipes, and he claims a strong ethical value for its attainment: he claims that although being good does not necessarily ensure happiness, individuals who are happy are generally good. Therefore he concludes that “The happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life.” (p.173).

© Dr Kathleen O’Dwyer 2010

Kathleen O’Dwyer is a scholar, teacher and author with a particular interest in the relevance of philosophy to everyday life. Her book The Possibility of Love: An Interdisciplinary Analysis (2009) is a philosophical investigation into the complex experience of love.

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