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

Born into a rich, aristocratic family in the United Kingdom, Bertrand Russell had the privilege of being born into an English, upper-class family with all the help and resources available at his demise, in a society that was built and revolved around the prim and proper. English gentile society in the late 1800s were that and more – happiness was not something that was considered a must but was thought to come with the riches and comfort that their old money can buy.

Quite unsurprisingly enough, Bertrand Russell was by no means a happy person. Yes, he had the money, the solid education garnered from prestigious institutions and comfort in knowing that money was not going to be an issue to his livelihood and those after him –  yet he was suicidal and lonely in his teenage years. What confused him was the fact that rich people were just as unhappy – if not more – than their peers. Did they not have the comfort in knowing the paws of hunger will not claw its way around their neck? That money ought to solve the most common and dire causes of unhappiness at the time – starvation, illness, and the dreary cold?

In his unhappiness, he sought solace in the complicated world of Mathematics. In 1930, he published a book on “The Conquest of Unhappiness” – a thorough study on the modern causes of unhappiness as it relates to fellow humans of all classes and status in the society, aristocratic or plain working class alike. He broke down the causes of modern unhappiness into the following:

  • Meaninglessness
  • Competition
  • Boredom
  • Fatigue
  • Envy
  • Guilt and Shame
  • Persecution Mania
  • Fear of Public Opinion

As the first part in a two-part series, Russell will go on to write the causes of happiness, but let’s go through what he thought were the modern causes of why we are all unhappy – and shockingly, 90 years later, it still sounds remarkably relatable.

Meaninglessness

For this example, Russell points to a philosopher who wrote a grim, gloomy, unoptimistic book called “The Modern Temper” in 1929. The book challenged contemporary opinions of scientific progress and optimism – noting that pessimism reeks in all of us, and that “Ours is a lost cause, and there is no place for us in the natural universe.”

In his laments, he outright dismissed what he called “Byronic Unhappiness” – referring to the melancholy and melodramatic poet Lord Byron that capitalizes and normalizes the existential angst of “Everything is Meaningless”. Noting that this bleak worldview is hardly new, he suggests that this way of thinking is a form of “intellectual snobbery” and that these writers were “proud of their unhappiness”, justifying the reason of existing, self-identifying as a smart and selected few that are aware of the true nature of being humanely lonely.

Russell went on to call this form of justification “pathetic”. Even as a famous atheist, Russell was one of those glass half-full kind of guy, noting that we can look at this in two ways: Yes, we will all die and turn into specks of stardust, but let’s look on the bright side! We are still alive – let us find the meaning of our lives.

Years later, Steve Jobs echoed this sentiment in his arguably famous Stanford commencement speech:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Competition

Russell begins his argument with a horrifying story by Joseph Conrad of a ship in the Antarctic that ended with cannibalism. Essentially two gunned men on the ship tried to kill each other – justifying cannibalism as the only outcome possible when it comes to being the best man standing. In the story, both men had started out with the same strength and resilience, both were trained to use weapons exceptionally. After a night-long standoff, the best man eventually was the only one standing, and that my friends, is the true meaning of competition.

Forget your classmate who got a higher mark than you, your neighbor who has an expensive foreign car or the Football league, killing and eating your shipmates is the ultimate competition. 

Russell calls this “the struggle for life”. Where only the best and the fittest trump the rest. Now, what’s upsetting is that most of us are not caught in a gunfire competition on a ship in the Antarctic ocean. We just believe we are. Not all our competitions elicit healthy emotions and bring out the best in us, and when we constantly view the situation as fight or flight – that is where we end up in the vicious circle of being unhappy.

The point here is, competition in our head pits us with the next human being, but it is our fingers on the trigger making the decision – whether we pull the trigger or we let go; that is our choice.

Boredom

We must remember – our predecessors had to hunt for wooly mammoths for lunch and to them, that was the meaning of life. Sustaining their bellies and keeping them warm in the hard and rough terrain of earth.

We have got to admit – life became boring after that. For some reason, our lives are bound by routines, rules, and habits that everyone automatically adopts, as they become inevitably engrained in a society that questions uniqueness and differences yet quietly accept the ordinary and basic.

However, boredom is not all that bad – as Russell notes, once we go out of our way to avoid being bored by going to great lengths just to constantly experience that excitement – that’s when it can become dangerous.

Wrapping up

Russell will then go on to explain the rest of the modern causes of unhappiness, but the one takeaway here is that unhappiness is bound to be experienced by all of us, we are not and were not programmed to constantly be happy and that is okay. When we know life will eventually end for all of us one day, I believe that makes it all worthwhile – let us live our lives unapologetically before it ends.