Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Concept of Happiness

Bertrand Russell opens his book The Conquest of Happiness by suggesting that we are all familiar with happiness and unhappiness and that we can identify these emotional states in ourselves and in others, but that we are often at a loss to find the sources of these states. Russell stakes out what he sees are the causes of both happiness and unhappiness with the idea that helping folks to recognize the sources will help them to live their lives in a way that will heighten the chances for happiness. It isn't enough to just try to be happy, we must avoid unhappiness as much as strive for those things that make us happy -- family, productive work, individual interests, and so on.

In sources of unhappiness, Russell writes four general maxims:
1. remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself
2. don't overestimate your own merits
3. don't expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself
4. don't imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any desire to persecute you.

I like these maxims because they remind us to be aware of two things: that our judgments of ourselves are often stilted in our own favor and that our vision of others is often clouded by this. Russell asks us to be more aware of who we are in relation to others and to be vigilant in taking others into consideration.

*I had originally planned a much longer version of this which included some thoughts on Aristotle and some lines from Nietzsche's Ecce Homo. That version was scrapped because this draft had been languishing in the FLP ether for too long and it became obvious that I would never have finished the whole things as I had envisioned it. mr


~c said...

I really, really liked this post.

I'd love to see a bigger background of the book author, though I've a hard time swallowing anything that is a list, or a statistic like gambling for happiness.

Most of the time, my life's pursuit is not happiness, never really has been, never really ever will be. I want to be content, satisfied, stationary, immovable. Without sadness, without unhappiness, true happiness would never exist or felt.

One of the things that comes to my mind personally is a quote at the end of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. As the author winds down the epic and untimely subjected collection, he breaks it into focus on two things throughout the final chapter or two: the importance of life and importance of death.

"Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light, death is great as life."

M Raese said...

The reason that I find Russell's rendering of happiness to be so powerful is that it takes many of the elements you mention into account. For Russell, happiness is satisfaction and contentment. He strives to redefine happiness away from the momentary emotional state of joy and back toward a classical notion of happiness, similar to what Aristotle describes as eudaimonia. Happiness, then, is a well-lived life.

~c said...

Wow. I looked him up on both Amazon & Wiki. What a prolific philosopher! Most of his works are under $5 used. Are there any others you'd suggest?

M Raese said...

It depends on what you want to read. He wrote a lot of general philosophy, analytic philosophy, and also he wrote pretty extensively on atheism. I have to confess that I own more works of his than I've read. I liked Why I am not a Christian a lot. The one I want to read next is A History of Western Philosophy.