Book Review: “The Conquest of Happiness”

Book Review: “The Conquest of Happiness”

Consider the gibberish below, the kind of writing one encounters when one boards a spaceship from Mars during a night’s wildest dreams. It is so obscure that it made Rome decline. It is so abstract that Picasso tore up his paintings when he witnessed this behemoth. It is so… (Ok, I should stop.)

Just…. just…. WHAT THE F!

This is the kind of writing which one will only encounter in the dusty rooms of an advanced mathematics class, or in a philosophical tome on logic and mathematics. It is written by one of the most famous English philosophers in the 20th century, and while this proposition essentially “proven” the most practical thing in the universe (namely, that “1+1=2”), it is essentially irrelevant to how we determine the attitude in which we face our daily lives.
(Actually, the goals of the book in which the proposition is extracted is ultimately disproved by “Godel’s incompleteness theorem”. As in mathematics, any attempt made to encapsulate it through axioms and inferences, must ultimately imply that the system is either A. inconsistent; or B. there must be some truths of mathematics which cannot be deduced through it. But this just over the head, so just… forget about it.)

It makes my head pain to think that we need a proposition, to prove another proposition: WHAT IS THIS TRAGEDY CALLED MATHS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But then again, look at the quotations below, which I would extract a few from a very timely book which I have recently read:

“In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.”

“If one lived for ever the joys of life would inevitably in the end lose their savor. As it is, they remain perennially fresh.”

It might come as surprise to you that both the fantastically, wondrously, deliciously head spinning mathematical proposition that I listed above, and the down-to-earth, practical, and pragmatic advice listed below are both written by the same authors, namely, by Bertrand Russell, the aforementioned philosopher. (But maybe it is no surprise to you, since I asked it in such an obvious way, right?) The book above is named “Principia Mathematica” (which I guess NO ONE ever wanted to read, unless you pride yourself in masochism), and the book which I am today reviewing is called “The Conquest of Happiness”.

The monster has shown his face! The monster of maths! The anathema to all my pains, Bertrand Russell!

Bertrand Russell, one of the most eminent logicians and mathematicians, also one of the founders of the now popular “analytic philosophy” in Anglo-Saxon countries, is also a very prolific writers on topics like education, society, politics, ethics, marriage, sex, and in this case, happiness, which is actually a field most commonly associated with psychology. He is also a historian, a social critic, a political activist, and a pacifist, which advocated against the Vietnam Wars etc. Before this, Russell believed that philosophy as a subject should be strictly technical, and highly restricted: philosophy as an academic subject. In the later half of his life, he turned towards popular philosophy, the kind of philosophy that most laymen are familiar with: the philosophy of life. He is a maverick, and an iconoclast of his time, and in this case in regards to this book, I consider him a psychologist, and one of the highest order at that.

Run you fools!

In an age where self-help books become one heck of a redundant genre, “Conquest” remains ever-relevant. Written 84 years ago, where the self-help books as a genre is nonexistent, the message in it is timeless, it doesn’t age; it grows ever present. Our age is an age of unhappiness, where people fret over every failure, refusing to see those few moments where they truly shine. As Kierkegaard said, “ours is an age of reflection, not of passion.” Everyone is obsessed with their own shortcomings, making themselves suffer for every mistake they made. We not only judge others, we judge ourselves, and in judging ourselves, the vicious cycle continues.

The book first diagnosed our current condition, our contemporary psyche, what makes us unhappy. Russell mentioned several issues, such as envy, boredom, persecution mania, the sense of committing a sin, etc. Now, what is surprising is that Russell didn’t stoop so low as to become dogmatic. His style is carefree, and when he spoke, he spoke with a tone of wisdom, not of authority. And we will gladly listen to his “common sense”, which is anything but that, since common sense is so rare nowadays. There is a common theme that links together all these “Russellian” factors of unhappiness, namely, that of the refusal to see reality as it is, a thwarted and distorted outlook of life. Take for example, if I am a megalomania, perceiving myself as important, and my work crucial to the advancement of society, then whenever I encounter an obstacle, I will be more likely to blame others for my own failures, and I will also be envious of those that are more successful than me, ad infinitum. Perhaps, the sense of sin is one of the most crucial factor of unhappiness, because if I constantly feel myself as guilty, as wronging somebody else, would I ever be happy? And wouldn’t constantly perceiving myself as a sinful person also be a form of megalomania? An attention seeker?

Compared to the diagnosis of the causes of unhappiness, the factors of happiness are relatively simple, which is to commit oneself to a project, a job, to be enthusiastic about it, to seek to build constructive and close impersonal relationships, and to regain that zest of life. It all sounds so simple, and it is. These things that Russell raised are so common-sensical that I am baffled at first that a philosopher of such a high order should write a book as simple as this. But Russell never claimed otherwise; he never professed to have found a profound way of living, of founding a new theory of happiness. He merely said what he had experienced, what he had observed through his life. And it is precisely that these are such common notions, that we become oblivious to them; we perceive ourselves as always having them, and since they are so easy to obtain, we no longer raise ourselves up in order to make an effort and make ourselves happy, it doesn’t matter that much to us anymore.

To conquer happiness, to make ourselves a “happy man” (or a “happy person” if you want a non-sexist term), that is what Russell encouraged us to do. Russell’s happy man is one who is passionate, filled with the zest of life, have close relationships with others, work with enthusiasm, who rationally dissects his own distorted worldview of depression and unhappiness, objective, and most importantly, never self-centered, purged of the obsession of the ego, of the self. It requires some effort, although happiness can also arrive in the form of contentment, of enjoying the view as it is, and even when we experienced resignation in the face of the insurmountable (trust me, nothing more enjoyable than this).

This is a book that is somewhat outdated (since it was written 84 YEARS AGO!). It is somewhat biased towards extroverts, as there is a certain description of introverts as constantly neurotic, which is quite simply untrue. And then there are the sexist linguistic usages, “the happy man”, never woman, or people (although Russell, in his days, is radically feminist). But then again, the message is so useful and so practical, that it is a detriment to not read it. Its messages conform with what psychologists nowadays find. It is filled with the prudence and the non-common-sensical wisdom of Bertrand Russell, one of the most eloquent writers of the 20th century. In short, it is how popular self-help and philosophy books should be written.

I remember what Viktor Frankl once said in “Man’s Search for Meaning”, that the acquiring of meaning must ensue some form of pursuit, and cannot be obtained when meaning is the direct goal of the pursuit. What this means is that we cannot make what we seek as a direct goal, because to do this, we would not only fail to obtain the goal, but also make ourselves more and more miserable as we perceive our failures. And this, I think, is the same with happiness, that happiness must always ensue a project, a relationship, or a work, and instead of viewing happiness as a goal to pursue, an end to be achieved, it should be viewed as an ingredient to life — a happy life.
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Hew studied at HELP (love that school), is a Psych grad, and currently works at a non-consequential job for non-consequential wages. Talk with him about literature or the arts (visual and audio), or just anything related to pop culture and he will spazz with geekish excitement (please talk to him, he is lonely and needs help). He lives in Malaysia.

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