A 90 Year-Old Cure for Unhappiness

In 1930 Bertrand Russell published a book that he hoped would suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer.”

Whether we still suffer in the same ways in 2018 is a matter for debate, but what is true is that ‘The Conquest of Happiness’ still offers some valuable insights and guidance for leading a happy life today.

The first thing to note is that happiness is not something that is going to come easy.

“Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstances. That is why I have called this book The Conquest of Happiness. For in a world so full of avoidable and unavoidable misfortunes, of illness and psychological tangles, of struggle and poverty and ill will, the man or woman who is to be happy must find ways of coping with the multitudinous causes of unhappiness by which each individual is assailed.”

I’d like to think the world isn’t going to assail us as much these days, but it is true that life is a series of ups and downs, and you never really know how many of each you’re going to get. Maybe you get more ups than downs, but sitting back and waiting for this to happen is no way to guarantee a happy life.

You can probably swing the ups in your favour through effort, of course, and it is also through effort that we might keep a sane and healthy mind even in the face of a down. In fact, Russell believes that even if it were possible to remove all the downs, this would not necessarily be a beneficial accomplishment. 

“The human animal, like others, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle for life, and when by means of great wealth homo sapiens can gratify all his whims without effort, the mere absence of effort from his life removes an essential ingredient of happiness. The man who acquires easily things for which he feels only a very moderate desire concludes that the attainment of desire does not bring happiness. If he is of a philosophic disposition, he concludes that human life is essentially wretched, since the man who has all he wants is still unhappy.”

We enjoy life more when we earn its pleasures. Putting in work to achieve things drives a sense of purpose that is missing when we get whatever we want. But of course it matters where we direct this effort. Not all paths are equal, not all ends promote happiness or well-being.


One area of life in which we expend the most effort is what we might define as ‘work.’ While there are many people that dislike their jobs, work itself can be highly rewarding under the right conditions.

“Two chief elements make work interesting: first, the exercise of skill, and second, construction.

Every man who has acquired some unusual skill enjoys exercising it until it has become a matter of course, or until he can no longer improve himself. This motive to activity begins in early childhood: a boy who can stand on his head becomes reluctant to stand on his feet.”

I have always wondered if talent or enjoyment first drives our interest in something—that is, do we enjoy things because we find that we’re good at them, or do we find we enjoy something and only then work to get better at it? Either way, Russell believes that it is in the growing of our skills that we derive a great deal of happiness, largely irrespective of the behavior it regards.

“I imagine that an able surgeon, in spite of the painful circumstances in which his work is done, derives satisfaction from the exquisite precision of his operations. The same kind of pleasure, though in a less intense form, is to be derived from a great deal of work of a humbler kind. I have even heard of plumbers who enjoyed their work, though I have never had the good fortune to meet one. All skilled work can be pleasurable, provided the skill required is either variable or capable of indefinite improvement.”


While exercising and improving our skills is necessary, it is also the case that we care about the bigger picture—what is the point in this work? What are we creating or achieving through it? Is it simply an activity to be enjoyed in itself or is there a larger purpose?

While many work towards goals such as living good moral lives or improving the world, Russell acknowledges and laments the fact that many people still strive for a definition of success that relies upon money and/or the surpassing of others.

“The man who has double my salary is doubtless tortured by the thought that someone else in turn has twice as much as he has, and so it goes on. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot, therefore, get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some person even more successful than you are. You can get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.”

This type of mislead motivation poses a risk not only to the happiness we derive from work, but also that of leisure. Competition, Russell argues, is to put oneself at risk of burning out.

“Competition considered as the main thing in life is too grim, too tenacious, too much a matter of taut muscles and intent will, to make a possible basis of life for more than one or two generations at most. After that length of time it must produce nervous fatigue, various phenomena of escape, a pursuit of pleasures as tense and as difficult as work (since relaxing has become impossible), and in the end a disappearance of the stock through sterility. It is not only work that is poisoned by the philosophy of competition; leisure is poisoned just as much. The kind of leisure which is quiet and restoring to the nerves comes to be felt boring.”


When our drive for success is held in check, our leisure time is able to be filled with other meaningful activities. Russell believes that we should strive towards as many as possible.

“The man who enjoys watching football is to that extent superior to the man who does not. The man who enjoys reading is still more superior to the man who does not, since opportunities for reading are more frequent than opportunities for watching football. 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. Life is too short to be interested in everything, but it is good to be interested in as many things as are necessary to fill our days.”

Being a jack of all trades helps hedge our bets against the ravages of change. It also means we get to expand our knowledge base into broad domains which themselves are inherently satisfying.

“Each of us is in the world for no very long time, and within the few years of his life has to acquire whatever he is to know of this strange planet and its place in the universe. To ignore our opportunities for knowledge, imperfect as they are, is like going to the theatre and not listening to the play.”

To be happy, direct your effort towards meaningful goals that don’t require comparisons to other people or their bank accounts, and learn as much as you can about everything that interests you. For more, read Russell’s full book ‘The Conquest of Happiness.

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