Russell’s conquest, Freud’s discontent

1930. A very good year for happiness?

It was the year Bertrand Russell published Conquest for Happiness, and Sigmund Freud Civilization and Its Discontents. We used Russell’s book two years ago in HAP 101, to great result I thought. I still think its main counsel is fundamentally sound:

The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible , and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile. 
The most universal and distinctive mark of happy men [is] zest. 

 Russell had been cadging from William James, for whom life becomes most “significant” when we locate ideals outside ourselves that elicit our greatest energies and ambitions. The solid meaning of life is a “marriage” of such ideals with “some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man’s or woman’s pains.”

Or, it’s John Dewey’s continuous human community.

With “zest” Russell makes his indebtedness to James nearly explicit.

The lustre of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with… Let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in;—and his days pass by with zest. 

 “Zest” is one of James’s favorite words, charged with the vibrancy of experience not as a metaphysical category but the felt movement of life as literal inspiration, something to draw in and express through all the pores of one’s being. 

Zest seems to be one of Russell’s favorite words too, earning an entire chapter of its own. Remember the first time he mentioned it? You couldn’t miss the echo of James there. (I can’t, anyway.)

I believe this unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life, leading to destruction of that natural zestand appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends. 

 More zest from Russell:

What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life. 

Genuine zest is part of the natural make-up of human beings… Young children are interested in everything that they see and hear; the world is full of surprises to them, and they are perpetually engaged with ardour in the pursuit of knowledge, not, of course, of scholastic knowledge, but of the sort that consists in acquiring familiarity with the objects that attract their attention. 

Animals, even when adult, retain their zest provided they are in health. 

 Russell was a notorious advocate of “free love,” a serial philanderer whose passions knew no bounds. He sought zest in varied “affection”… and in family life. He saw no contradiction. Do we? Did his analyst? (What a strange job that would be: the great analytic philosopher’s analyst!)

Or did the analyst’s analyst’s analyst, Sigmund Freud?

Well, Freud was not a big one for zest. Who would be, in the debilitating throes of cancer? But he was dissuaded from the quest for happiness not only by bodily suffering but also by the world’s assaults and those of our fellows. “All hopes for  long-term happiness are therefore based on illusion.”

Don’t go to the couch, if you’re looking for happiness.

I vote Russell (if this is a contest) and for his happy cosmopolitan, who

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 entirely separate from those who will come after him. 

That’s a happy thought indeed, and an inspiring one. But Russell wrote of it while himself stumbling through darkness, apparently. Give him credit for a bootstraps operation, even if it “took” only later. It still inspires some of us who’ve come after him.

Don’t panic. Don’t fear. Hope.

The younger Russell, who wrote “A Free Man’s Worship,” had considered happiness “unattainable, given the meaningless of human fates seen against the indifference of the cosmos.” But why should we expect “the cosmos” to care? We’re the cosmic carers, we, and whatever other intelligences might conceivably have come to consciousness out beyond the stars in our neighborhood. Our meaning is in ourselves, not in our stars.

There’s more in chapter VII about happiness “set points” and treadmills etc., and more on Sonha Lyubomirsky’s 40% solution (“up to 40% of happiness is within your power to change”). Good stuff.

And there’s more on gratitude, which we do need, “and the  advice that learning to experience it more fully can add to happiness seems valid for everyone.” Once again: if you’re alive, you’re lucky. Count your blessings, ingrate!

But I’m not grateful for the Simone Weil bit at the end of this chapter. Why shouldn’t a Christian reject Freud’s or Russell’s atheism as deluded? Well, because it’s pretty clearly not. It may be unwelcome or unavailing, but it’s based on a real dearth of evidence, not a chemerical one. Extraordinary claims still require extraordinary evidence. “A reality beyond this world, outside space and time” is plenty “disputable.” And dubitable.

But if it makes you happy to imagine such a trans-spatio-temporal world, and if your imagination does not overstep itself to compromise or scandalize others’ alternative visions, I guess I say: go for it.

And then I say: been there, done that. Please keep it to yourself.

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