Date finished: June 3rd 2016
There are a lot of books in my house. You may have gathered that already. Mostly I stick to my own books and go and obtain more by whatever means as and when my to-be-read pile is running low. But sometimes I’ll peruse the home for forgotten literature. My family have accumulated books over the years – too many to fit in the bookcases we have – and they can be found tucked away in cupboards and drawers. Most of them aren’t of much interest to me, but every now and then I’ll go on a search through the house’s forgotten crannies for something of interest.
Which is how I came upon this rather incredible edition of Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness. This is apparently a seventh impression (cheaper edition), printed in 1941 and sold for just 5 shillings. The dust jacket has yellowed and frayed, but quite frankly I reckon I’ll be lucky to look as good when I’m 75.
The Conquest of Happiness is a mixture of biography and philosophy; a sort of precursor to self-help. Russell prefaces the work with an admission that he’s no expert and that the book may or may not contain any wisdom for the reader. He wants to talk about happiness, and some of what he says may help the reader, but there are no guarantees. This is a refreshing change from the dozen or so experts who churn out self-help volumes on a regular basis, promising that they will stop you from smoking, or make you successful, or transform you from a generally awful person into someone more agreeable; all of them blurting out vague, contradictory common sense dressed up in wordy language to make them sound more like life philosophies. Russell has no such pretensions about his expertise or ability to help, which probably means he’s more
The work is split into two parts. The first part deals with the causes of unhappiness; the latter with the causes of happiness. Much of it is based on Russell’s experience – he considers himself to be happy, and this is what he’s learned. Again, this isn’t self-help, it’s a vaguely biographical meditation on happiness and unhappiness. Each chapter is like a mini-essay: one on envy, one on affection, one on boredom and excitement, etc, and in each, Russell meditates on the topic’s relationship to our happiness or unhappiness and how we might go about relieving the negative feelings and achieving the positive ones.
There are some kernels of wisdom amidst the ostentatious language. Russell’s cure for fears and worries actually contains some insight (essentially, don’t try to avoid thinking about things because that’s when they consume you; instead dwell intensely on what’s worrying you and work out what’s the worst that could really happen. And then consider what the consequences and effects of that worst scenario are – you’ll find they’re nowhere near as awful as your irrational mind thinks), and there are other similar nuggets within. Most are common sense, but Russell manages to state them in a clear concise manner, unlike the self-help practitioners who’ve created an entire, 200-page bullshit-psychology just to say the same thing.
And of course, the book’s age does make some of the content dated, particularly in regards to women (Russell’s views are progressive for his era, but time has made them somewhat irrelevant), religious morals (which he mostly rejects, but again they’re not much of a modern concern), some of the contexts in which he speaks, and his faith in certain types of analysis which have since become outdated. The language and mode of discussion too are somewhat anachronistic. Nonetheless, this is to be expected from a book from 1930.
Depending on your disposition and personality, you’ll relate to different parts of The Conquest of Happiness, but you’ll nonetheless find something resonant within in its pages, whether its the part on persecution mania or the family, this is a book that, despite approaching a century in age, still has much to teach us.