Today in SOL, more from Bertrand Russell on the causes of unhappiness. We’ve looked at the Byronic/Ecclesiastic/”lost cause” form of constitutional unhappiness, at competition, and at boredom. Now we’ll consider “fatigue, envy, (the sense of) sin, persecution mania, & fear of public opinion.”
Physical fatigue can be a good thing, it calms and relaxes. That’s one reason why I try to spend an hour a day on shank’s mare, on two manually-powered wheels, or (on bad days) in the gym. On the other hand, it can be an inconvenient obstacle to mental labor in the absence of compensating stimuli (like, say, another postseason MLB victory by your team).
Nervous fatigue is something else again. Remember, Russell wrote this book in the Depression-era ’30s. We can relate more readily to his discussion of fear for one’s job or income as a source of such fatigue, perhaps, than to the presence of strangers in the subway. In any event, he says, fatigue comes from worry, a form of fear that can be mitigated by a better philosophy of life and greater control of one’s thoughts.
I’ve been worrying lately, for instance, about how to get everyone in SOL more actively involved in the course. Lost some sleep over it last night, in fact.
Men take their business worries to bed with them, and in the hours of the night, when they should be gaining fresh strength to cope with tomorrow’s troubles, they are going over and over again in their minds problems about which at the moment they can do nothing, thinking about them, not in a way to produce a sound line of conduct on the morrow, but in that half-insane way that characterizes the troubled meditations of insomnia. Something of the night madness still clings about them in the morning, clouding their judgment, spoiling their temper, and making every obstacle infuriating.
Tell me about it. I really needed to be thinking about other things at 4 am, or about nothing at all. The good news from Lord Russell: “it is quite possible to shut out the ordinary troubles of ordinary days…”
It comes back again to what we heard Dr. Flicker say the other day, and to what Russell wrote of happiness and the cosmic perspective in “Why I’m Not a Christian.” He says it here too. The universe will little note nor long remember who shows up to talk about happiness today. “Our doings are not so important… nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance.” William James said a similar thing in defending the will (he really meant right) to believe:
Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.
Russell conquered his stage-fright about public speaking with such reflections. My friend Andy in Huntsville admits, much to the surprise of his friends, that this is one of his own persistent sources of anxiety. I’ll remind him to read his Russell.
Also intriguing is the advice to let your unconscious and subconscious (what’s the difference, again, Dr. Freud?) work for you “underground”:
“A conscious thought can be planted in the unconscious” and eventually bear fruit without your seeming to lift a finger or lose a moment’s rest. Isn’t that why it’s easier to write after a good night’s sleep, too?
And then there’s this congenial convergence with Buddhism: “one’s ego is no very large part of the world.” Easier said than slept on, at 4 in the morning. But true nonetheless. The formula is simple: more courage=less worry=less fatigue=more happiness.
Most impressive to me is Russell’s acknowledgment of attention as the crucial faculty. We can develop “the habit of thinking of things at the right time,” we can manipulate our own unconscious, and we can restore healing “contact with Earth.”
More conquering wisdom:
“Envy is the basis of democracy… Whoever wishes to increase human happiness must wish to increase admiration and to diminish envy,” and it had better begin in childhood. (Same for the “sense of sin.”) “The habit of thinking in terms of comparison is a fatal one.”
We “must learn to transcend self… to acquire the freedom of the Universe.”
“The ideally virtuous man… permits the enjoyment of all good things whenever there is no evil consequence to outweigh the enjoyment.” Spoken like a Brit who’s read his Mill.
“The hatred of reason which is common in our time…”
“…don’t expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself.”
“Young people are ill-advised if the yield to the pressure of the old in any vital matter.” Teachers and parents, take heed.
“…people should be natural, and should follow their spontaneous tastes in so far as these are not definitely antisocial.”
“The best way to increase toleration is to multiply the number of individuals who enjoy real happiness…”
NOTE the recent revised reissue of this book, by Tim Phillips: A Modern-Day Interpretation…
NOTE TO STUDENTS: despite Russell’s timely reminder to take the large view of small worries, I am still worrying about the fate of those of you who are still not taking seriously the attendance/participation requirement of our course. So, I’m looking forward to seeing posts on our course website from you all today, and then seeing you all in your seats at 1 pm – barring medical or other emergency, like (say) an occupation of Nashville…