Quotes From Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness”


I recently remarked on re-reading Russell’s classic, The Conquest of Happiness. In the meantime I’ve discovered a number of quotable gems in the book. Here are a quote or two from each chapter.

From Chap. 1 – What Makes People Unhappy

“I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire — such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other — as essentially unattainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. … Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.”

“Self-absorption is of various kinds. We may take the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac as three very common types. … This man [the sinner] is perpetually incurring his own disapprova … He has an image of himself as he thinks he ought to be, which is in continual conflict with his knowledge of himself as he is….Narcissism is, in a sense, the converse of an habitual sense of sin; it consists in the habit of admiring oneself and wishing to be admired….When vanity is carried to this height, there is no genuine interest in any other person, and therefore no real satisfaction to be obtained from love….The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men in history.”

Chap. 2 – Byronic Unhappiness

” I do not myself think that there is any superior rationality in being unhappy. The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead. . . . the truth is that they are unhappy for some reason of which they are not aware, and this unhappiness leads them to dwell upon the less agreeable characteristics of the world in which they live.”

Chap. 3 – Competition

“What people mean, therefore, by the struggle for life is really the struggle for success. What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbours. It is very singular how little men seem to realise that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which they remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level….The root of the trouble springs from too much emphasis upon competitive success as the main source of happiness.”

“Education used to be conceived very largely as a training in the capacity for enjoyment — enjoyment, I mean, of those more delicate kinds that are not open to wholly uncultivated people. In the eighteenth century it was one of the marks of a ‘gentleman’ to take a discriminating pleasure in literature, pictures, and music. We nowadays may disagree with his taste, but it was at least genuine. The rich man of the present day tends to be of quite a different type. He never reads. If he is creating a picture gallery with a view to enhancing his fame, he relies upon experts to choose his pictures; the pleasure that he derives from them is not the pleasure of looking at them, but the pleasure of preventing some other rich man from having them.”

Chap. 4 – Boredom and Excitement

“We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement….Young men and young women meet each other with much less difficulty than was formerly the case, and every housemaid expects at least once a week as much excitement as would have lasted a Jane Austen heroine throughout a whole novel.”

“I am not prepared to say that drugs can play no good part in life whatsoever. There are moments, for example, when an opiate will be prescribed by a wise physician, and I think these moments more frequent than prohibitionists suppose. But the craving for drugs is certainly something which cannot be left to the unfettered operation of natural impulse. And the kind of boredom which the person accustomed to drugs experiences when deprived of them is something for which I can suggest no remedy except time. Now what applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. … A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Chap. 5 – Fatigue

“Purely physical fatigue, provided it is not excessive, tends if anything to be a cause of happiness; it leads to sound sleep and a good appetite, and gives zest to the pleasures that are possible on holidays. But when it is excessive it becomes a very grave evil. . . . Physical labour carried beyond a certain point is atrocious torture, and it has very frequently been carried so far as to make life all but unbearable.”

“Even great sorrows can be survived; troubles which seem as if they must put an end to happiness for life fade with the lapse of time until it becomes almost impossible to remember their poignancy. But over and above these self-centred considerations is the fact that one’s ego is no very large part of the world. The man who can centre his thoughts and hopes upon something transcending self can find a certain peace in the ordinary troubles of life which is impossible to the pure egoist….My own belief is that a conscious thought can be planted into the unconscious if a sufficient amount of vigour and intensity is put into it….A man who has learnt not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished.”

Chap. 6 – Envy

“Envy is itself a terrible obstacle to happiness. I think envy is immensely promoted by misfortunes in childhood. The child who finds a brother or sister preferred before himself acquires the habit of envy, and when he goes out into the world looks for injustices of which he is the victim, perceives them at once if they occur, and imagines them if they do not….Merely to realise the causes of one’s own envious feelings is to take a long step towards curing them. The habit of thinking in terms of comparisons is a fatal one. When anything pleasant occurs it should be enjoyed to the full, without stopping to think that it is not so pleasant as something else that may possibly be happening to someone else….With the wise man, what he has does not cease to be enjoyable because someone else has something else. Envy, in fact, is one form of a vice, partly moral, partly intellectual, which consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations….You cannot, therefore, get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some person even more successful than you are. You can get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that come your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.”

Chap. 7 – The Sense of Sin

“As a matter of fact the sense of sin, so far from being a cause of s good life, is quite the reverse. It makes a man unhappy and it makes him feel inferior. Being unhappy, he is likely to make claims upon other people which are excessive and which prevent him from enjoying happiness in personal relations. Feeling inferior, he will have a grudge against those who seem superior. He will find admiration difficult and envy easy. He will become a generally disagreeable person, and will find himself more and more solitary. An expansive and generous attitude towards other people not only gives happiness to others, but is an immense source of happiness to its possessor, since it causes him to be generally liked. But such an attitude is scarcely possible to the man haunted by a sense of sin.”

Chap. 8 – Persecuation Mania

“One of the most universal forms of irrationality is the attitude taken by practically everybody towards malicious gossip. Very few people can resist saying malicious things about their acquaintances, and even on occasion about their friends; yet when people hear that anything has been said against themselves, they are filled with indignant amazement. It has apparently never occurred to them that, just as they gossip about everyone else, so everyone else gossips about them….This gives them a wrong sense of proportion, and causes them to attach undue importance to facts which are perhaps exceptional rather than typical.”

9. Fear of Public Opinion

“I think that in general, apart from expert opinion, there is too much respect paid to the opinions of others, both in great matters and in small ones. One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways….Fear of public opinion, like every other form of fear, is oppressive and stunts growth. It is difficult to achieve any kind of greatness while a fear of this kind remains strong, and it is impossible to acquire that freedom of spirit in which true happiness consists, for it is essential to happiness that our way of living should spring from our own deep impulses and not from the accidental tastes and desires of those who happen to be our neighbours, or even our relations.”

Chap. 10 – Is Happiness Still Possible?

“Cynicism such as one finds very frequently among the most highly educated young men and women of the West results from the combination of comfort with powerlessness. Powerlessness makes people feel that nothing is worth doing, and comfort makes the painfulness of this feeling just endurable….The happiness of the reformer or revolutionary depends upon the course of public affairs, but probably even while he is being executed he enjoys more real happiness than is possible for the comfortable cynic.”

Chap. 11 – Zest

“The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has, and the less he is at the mercy of fate, since if he loses one thing he can fall back upon another. Life is too short to be interested in everything, but it is good to be interested in as many things as are necessary to fill our days….Adventurous men enjoy shipwrecks, mutinies, earthquakes, conflagrations, and all kinds of unpleasant experiences, provided they do not go so far as to impair health. They say to themselves in an earthquake, for example, ‘So that is what an earthquake is like’, and it gives them pleasure to have their knowledge of the world increased by this new item.”

Chap. 12 – Affection

“The best type of affection is reciprocally life-giving; each receives affection with joy and gives it without effort, and each finds the whole world more interesting in consequence of the existence of this reciprocal happiness. There is, however, another kind, by no means uncommon, in which one person sucks the vitality of the other, one receives what the other gives, but gives almost nothing in return. Some very vital people belong to this bloodsucking type. They extract the vitality from one victim after another, but while they prosper and grow interesting, those upon whom they live grow pale and dim and dull. Such people use others as means to their own ends, and never consider them as ends in themselves. Fundamentally they are not interested in those whom for the moment they think they love; they are interested only in the stimulus to their own activities, perhaps of a quite impersonal sort. Evidently this springs from some defect in their nature, but it is one not altogether easy either to diagnose or to cure. It is a characteristic frequently associated with great ambition, and is rooted, I should say, in an unduly one-sided view of what makes human happiness.”

Chap. 13 – Family

“This failure of the family to provide the fundamental satisfaction which in principle it is capable of yielding is one of the most deep-seated causes of the discontent which is prevalent in our age.”

Chap. 14 – Work

“Consistent purpose is not enough to make life happy, but it is an almost indispensable condition of a happy life. And consistent purpose embodies itself mainly in work.”

Chap. 15 – Impersonal Interests

“One of the sources of unhappiness, fatigue, and nervous strain is inability to be interested in anything that is not of practical importance in one’s own life. The result of this is that the conscious mind gets no rest from a certain small number of matters, each of which probably involves some anxiety and some element of worry….The result is excitability, lack of sagacity, irritability, and a loss of sense of proportion. All these are both causes and effects of fatigue. As a man gets more tired, his external interests fade, and as they fade he loses the relief which they afford him and becomes still more tired. This vicious circle is only too apt to end in a breakdown.”

“A man who has once perceived, however temporarily and however briefly, what makes greatness of soul, can no longer be happy if he allows himself to be petty, self-seeking, troubled by trivial misfortunes, dreading what fate may have in store for him. The man capable of greatness of soul will open wide the windows of his mind, letting the winds blow freely upon it from every portion of the universe. He will see himself and life and the world as truly as our human limitations will permit; realising the brevity and minuteness of human life, he will realise also that in individual minds is concentrated whatever of value the known universe contains. And he will see that the man whose mind mirrors the world becomes in a sense as great as the world. In emancipation from the fears that beset the slave of circumstance he will experience a profound joy, and through all the vicissitudes of his outward life he will remain in the depths of his being a happy man.”

Chap. 16 – Effort and  Resignation

“The wise man, though he will not sit down under preventable misfortunes, will not waste time and emotion upon such as are unavoidable, and even such as are in themselves avoidable he will submit to if the time and labour required to avoid them would interfere with the pursuit of some more important object. Many people get into fret or a fury over every little thing that goes wrong, and in this way waste a great deal of energy that might be more usefully employed. Even in the pursuit of really important objects it is unwise to become so deeply involved emotionally that the thought of possible failure becomes a constant menace to peace of mind.”

“Some people are unable to bear with patience even those minor troubles which make up, if we permit them to do so, a very large part of life. They are furious when they miss a train, transported with rage if their dinner is badly cooked, sunk in despair if the chimney smokes, and vowing vengeance against the whole industrial order when their clothes fail to return from the sanitary steam laundry. The energy that such people waste on trivial troubles would be sufficient, if more wisely directed, to make and unmake empires. The wise man fails to observe the dust that the housemaid has not dusted, the potato that the cook has not cooked, and the soot that the sweep has not swept. I do not mean that he takes no steps to remedy these matters, provided he has time to do so; I mean only that he deals with them without emotion. Worry and fret and irritation are emotions which serve no purpose.”

Chap. 17 – The Happy Man

“The man who is unhappy will, as a rule, adopt an unhappy creed, while the man who is happy will adopt a happy creed; each may attribute his happiness or unhappiness to his beliefs, while the real causation is the other way round. Certain things are indispensable to the happiness of most men, but these are simple things: food and shelter, health, love, successful work and the respect of one’s own herd. To some people parenthood also is essential. Where these things are lacking; only the exceptional man can achieve happiness, but where they are enjoyed, or can be obtained by well-directed effort, the man who is still unhappy is suffering from some psychological maladjustment which, if it is very grave, may need the services of a psychiatrist, but can in ordinary cases be cured by the patient himself, provided he sets about the matter in the right way….It should be our endeavour therefore, both in education and in attempts to adjust ourselves to the world, to aim at avoiding self-centred passions and at acquiring those affections and those interests which will prevent our thoughts from dwelling perpetually upon ourselves. It is not the nature of most men to be happy in a prison, and the passions which shut us up in ourselves constitute one of the worst kinds of prisons. Among such passions some of the commonest are fear, envy, the sense of sin, self-pity and self-admiration. In all these our desires are centred upon ourselves: there is no genuine interest in the outer world, but only a concern lest it should in some way injure us or fail to feed our ego.”

Russell concludes,

“In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world, which is implied in the doctrine of self-denial, disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves. Through such interests a man comes to feel himself part of the stream of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard-ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collision. All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack of integration; there is disintegration within the self through lack of coordination between the conscious and the unconscious mind; there is lack of integration between the self and society where the two are not knit together by the force of objective interests and affections. The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”

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6 thoughts on “Quotes From Russell’s “The Conquest of Happiness”

  1. On Envy:
    The Smothers Brothers and mom always liked you best. Yes, this seems unfair. But, I understood it well.I was a peevisb, difficult child. My brother was, mostly, a good kid.

  2. Dear Paul Van Pelt, on your comments on envy; Were you a peevish difficult child because that was what was expected of you, as opposed to your, mostly good Kid brother?
    Family roles are conferred unconsciously, being recognized as being ‘slightly’ obdurate allowed you to think thoughts outside the consensus view, a habit you still follow to your intellectual enrichment!

    Thank you for sharing this vignette that influenced the development of your personality!

  3. JR:
    Can’t say. Don’t know. My brother and I are closer now than in the last fifty years. Long story.

  4. Thank you very much for sharing all of these! Makes me feel better about listing to my NBA podcasts from time to time as breaks from all the heavy philosophy. : )

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