A study of Bertrand Russell’s 1930, “The Conquest of Unhappiness”

Bertrand Russell, as magnificent as he was, was not indifferent to the plights of men in reality. In a cont. study of his book,” The Conquest of Unhappiness”, Russell thoroughly explored the causes of men’s unhappiness. Fast forward to 90 years at the start of this year, his findings were remarkably still applicable to Earth’s modern men.

He points out the causes of unhappiness as below:

Russell will continue to explore the reasons for men’s happiness in the third part, but for now, let us dive deep into the remaining 5 causes of unhappiness and how Russell came to this point of conclusion.


Growing up as a physically active young lady, I participated in the school’s marathons. Not one to hide away from the blazing scorches of the afternoon Malay peninsular sun beaming down on me as I ran cross country and track, it was without a doubt that I would be horribly sunburned. Sunburned left aside, and I went on to swim, eventually participating in competitions, just for the fun of it.

As we get into the rat race of growing older and being as one would call it, “an adult”, life just got to a point where feeling overwhelmed became second nature. Overwhelmed by personal, work and family responsibilities (though in no way was it anyone’s fault per say), but outrightly overwhelmed anyway.

I always looked at my busy situation as “glass half full”. I mean, you can only pour so much water into a glass and it will keep overflowing. You can only be so busy, right?

Wrong, as it turned out to be. Over time, you start resenting these responsibilities, something you once held high hopes for. Something you once prided yourself as you suddenly shifted to an “adult”.

Russell, however, pointed out that fatigue we all know and face, is well split between the two. Physical fatigue and mental fatigue. Or as Russell calls it,” nervous fatigue”. Nervous fatigue leaves you feeling so emotionally burnt out from accumulation of stress, dealing with the everyday anxieties of possibly loosing your job from not performing well enough to the point where you don’t perform well enough. That fatigue is excruciating and not something someone jumps out of easily.

However, Russell states out – it only brings you down to that state of fatigue when you actually care about performing well enough. If you get rid of that perception, you would realize the world will still spin on its axis regardless of how you performed.

Little by little, it eats away at your nerves and one day, you wake up just pure unhappy. Now that, my friends, is something called burn-out and that leads me to the next cause of unhappiness.


We all know being envious of anything, or anyone is bad. Sinful even. But what happens when you are inherently fatigue-driven and envy comes to play, especially at work?

Not a fan of the American emphasis on competition, Russell believed that envy will continuously build up, regardless of time and age. With the rise of social media, we now know the lifestyles of not just friends and family, but that of the rich and famous.

Comparing status has become a norm, human nature almost, according to Russell. Long before social media stepped into the game.  What’s ironic is that with technology bridging gaps and bring people together through shared platforms or apps, we are now seeing an era of more fragmentation, polarization and mass diversification, probably now more than ever before. It’s that easy to experience fear of missing out (FOMO), envy and anger from the zero-second comparisons people make via social media.

Russell notes that modern humans are more prone to hatred than friendship within their hearts, but what we need to remember is how miniscule hatred can be in the larger grand scheme of things. We all will turn into stardust, and not even the rich and famous gets to escape that.

Guilt and Shame

This is by far the most relatable and contributing cause for my unhappiness. Speaking as a person with deeply held personal moral codes, and when I say, “moral codes”, no I do not mean the superstitions of childhood, where one shouldn’t smoke, drink, or have sex. That were the biggest “don’t dos” of my childhood, which I, and Russell, find, “simply silly”. The traditional morality of sin, is most likely than not, obsessed with traditions like cursing, smoking or sex. Meanwhile, what I do perceive as the “real moral dangers” of adulthood is further away than the perceived childhood moral codes.

To describe guilt and shame, Russell uses the phrase, “sense of sin”, which quite honestly can be dated back to the Victorian era, of which Russell has roots from. For Russell, the real dangers of morality involve crime and/or harsh behavior to the people around us, ferocity in political conflicts and shady business practices.

What I find intriguing is how Russell credits smoking as his savior. A survivor of a plane crash, Russell was part of the rescued people and all had one thing in common. They were all sat at the smoking part of the plane. Coincidence? Russell did not seem to think so.

There is guilt in whatever you do, and guilt in whatever you do not do. As Russell continues to point out – you do you, and let bygones be bygones. There will not be a time when you do not have that nagging sense of shame for your cautiously held moral codes, and that should not matter to anyone but to yourself. (I echo this, personally.)

Instead do the opposite of guilt and shame; take pride.

Persecution Mania

What Russell calls persecution mania is the outcome of being too self-absorbed and having an inflated ego. This can come in many forms but usually, it is,” Why aren’t people thanking me enough?” or “People don’t appreciate my true genius talent!”. That is all fine and dandy, until it surpasses the mark of being relatively “too full of yourself”.

To this, Russell says, and quite unremarkably so, everyone has ego. Be it inflated or deflated; it remains the same three letters – ego. Once you accept that as human nature, you’d realise that everybody judges, everybody gossips about one another, everybody assumes they’re bringing to the table what they say they have and how that is all perfectly human nature. Just don’t view it as a grand conspiracy against you.

“No satisfaction based upon self-deception is solid,” Russell writes. “And however unpleasant the truth may be, it is better to face it once for all, to get used to it, and to proceed to build your life in accordance with it.”

The takeaway here is to simply remember our place in the universe, and that, in the larger scheme of things, we may not be as important as we think we are.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t matter.

Fear of Public Opinion

We now live in a pluralistic society, where everybody is free to believe and do whatever they want, governed by rules of country and laws, of course. We can now have our own Spotify playlists, our own preferences, tastes and favorite TV shows. However so, that also means everybody has theirs as well.

Being intentionally eccentric is as uninteresting as being conventional – from Russell’s point of view. That goes to reason, the fear of disappearing amongst the human masses is real and can very well be the turning point for how you chose to go about the remainder of your lives. Whether that means you become a writer, or if you became a chocolate connoisseur or even a slightly different route – that means the fear of being a wallflower dictates your direction in life, in your choices and the things you say and do.

 Just stay natural, nobody can be who you are, even if there’s over 7.8 billion people on this Earth we call home, today.

Wrapping up…

Living life without the ups and downs would not equate to living. Merely just surviving, which is probably worse than dying. Unhappiness comes and goes, and that is just part of a parcel of walking through this short journey we call life.

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