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The Conquest of Happiness: It’s a Classic for a Reason

Beat the blues with the Routledge Classic The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

We are delighted to showcase The Conquest of Happiness and an interview with the philosopher A.C.Grayling, whose preface features in the Routledge Classic edition.

The current interest in happiness studies shows no signs of abating, with academic studies into well-being and happiness research competing with a proliferation of self-help experts, books and resources to tell us with how we can attain and retain happiness in life. This is nothing new though, as Bertrand Russell demonstrated in his classic title The Conquest of Happiness. Russell encourages zest, a retreat from self-absorption and an interest in the world around us in order to strive to attain happiness. Pre-dating our current fascination with self-help books by decades; this is a true classic offering sage advice for a satisfying life, beyond the facile quick fixes of today.


Is Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness still as relevant today? Read an extract What Makes People Unhappy? here, and our Q&A with philosopher A. C. Grayling below.

The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell: A Q&A with A. C. Grayling


Q: Since Russell wrote The Conquest of Happiness there has been a boom in the publishing of books about happiness. What makes Russell's book distinctive and why should it be read today?


A: Most of today's books on happiness are of the pop-psychological kind, offering quick and easy nostrums for combating the stresses and low-level depression and anxiety that we are told attends modern life. Russell had a unique combination of brilliance and common-sense, and was able to express what are often sharp insights in a very clear and simple-seeming way. In writing The Conquest of Happiness he drew on a deep well of personal experience and thought; he lived his own advice, and was not offering mere third-hand theory in giving it.


Q: Russell regards self-absorption as a chief cause of unhappiness. What does he mean by this and is he correct?


A: It was I think Ruskin who said 'a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel.' Russell rightly recognised that dwelling on oneself overmuch was a sure route to depression and disfunctionality. He advised looking outwards, having interests beyond oneself, as a way to live flourishingly. He is right.


Q: Russell writes that drunkenness is 'temporary suicide'. Does he really mean one can never be drunk and happy?


A: Getting drunk is a very temporary form of happiness - if happiness it is: it can exacerbate mournfulness too if an excess of alcohol is consumed when you're already down! - and of course it is a form of self-oblivion because the effect of alcohol is to depress inhibitions and makes one careless. I don’t think Russell disapproved of alcohol, but taken in excess it certainly involves a loss of self along with a loss of self-control, and it is an ephemeral thing, not a route to genuine flourishing in life.


Q: Russell writes that '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.' (p.109 of the Routledge Classics edition). Why does Russell value having a wide set of interests so highly?


A: Having an alert interest in the world around one, and a positive attitude to others, is a sure way of living with freshness and pleasure, because there is so much to see, know, do and learn in the multiplicity of experiences that the world offers. Dwelling on oneself and one's regrets and resentments is an equally sure way to a dismal and acidulous quasi-existence, narrow and dark. So much is obvious: and this is what Russell was insisting upon. Some people can have a single all-absorbing interest, an obsession or great passion, and find the kind of happiness that comes from complete self-forgetfulness; but that is comparatively rare, and a wide range of interests brings the enjoyment of variety and fascination with it that keeps one wide awake in life.


Q: There have been many empirical studies of happiness since Russell's book was first published. What would Russell make of the quest for a 'science' of happiness?


A: My guess is that Russell would think that an intelligent survey of human experience and character would give us a good general appreciation of the sorts of things that conduce to happiness and its opposite, and that a 'science' of happiness - the idea that it can be socially or for that matter medically engineered - takes away from the greater good that arises from making our own happiness autonomously, as a result of thought and choice.


Q: In the final chapter, Russell writes that 'the happy life is to an extraordinary extent the same as the good life.' Yet while Oskar Schindler might be said to have lived a good life, it was arguably not a happy one. Are the good life and the happy life the same thing?


A: I am confident that Russell would accept that there are good lives that are not happy, and would certainly accept that there are happy lives that are not good and their happiness is directly connected to their not being good (especially on moralistic definitions of 'good'!). But he is right to say that to a very large extent happy lives are good - in the sense of being worthwhile, flourishing, satisfying, productive lives: not necessarily moralistically 'good' - because it is in being worthwhile, satisfying, etc. that their happiness consists. In fact, there is a proper sense of 'happy' which precisely means 'worthwhile, satisfying' etc. - this is the sense on the American Declaration's 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' - the word does not simply mean 'a pleasant smiley feeling' (the sense we too often restrict it to now) but denotes a condition of being.


Q: In your preface to the Routledge Classics edition of Russell's The Conquest of Happiness you mention that you read Russell's book as a teenager. What useful advice do you think it offers teenagers today?


A: The teenage years can be difficult ones, too often blighted by the irksome feeling of restriction that comes from wanting to be independent and to experiment with life, but being limited by having too little money, opportunity and freedom. One typical result is a degree of self-absorption, difficulties with confidence, resentment at the rules that chafe and bind, conflicts with parents, insecurities and fears and occasional rashness and regrets. It is a matter of neurological and physiological fact about adolescence that brains are rewiring and hormones are highly active, with the consequence that everything can seem confusing and demanding to a painful degree. Russell's advice to look outwards, to focus on interests and people for their own sakes, to grasp the marvellously liberating opportunity to realise that the only person really bothered by your zits and lack of a certain brand of apparel that everyone else seems to be wearing is you, and that the world is infinitely exhilarating and fascinating - and indeed has real problems in it that one can help in trying to counter. That is what he meant by being outgoing and interested, and it is a sure-fire help in the difficult time when one feels like an adult and yet is being treated like a child.

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