Bertrand Russell on the Secret of Happiness
By Maria Popova
In my darkest hours, what has saved me again and again is some action of unselfing — some instinctive wakefulness to an aspect of the world other than myself: a helping hand extended to someone else’s struggle, the dazzling galaxy just discovered millions of lightyears away, the cardinal trembling in the tree outside my window. We know this by its mirror-image — to contact happiness of any kind is “to be dissolved into something complete and great,” something beyond the bruising boundaries of the ego. The attainment of happiness is then less a matter of pursuit than of surrender — to the world’s wonder, ready as it comes.
That is what the Nobel-winning philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) explores in The Conquest of Happiness (public library) — the 1930 classic that gave us his increasingly urgent wisdom on the vital role of boredom in flourishing.
The world is vast and our own powers are limited. If all our happiness is bound up entirely in our personal circumstances it is difficult not to demand of life more than it has to give. And to demand too much is the surest way of getting even less than is possible. The man* who can forget his worries by means of a genuine interest in, say, the Council of Trent, or the life history of stars, will find that, when he returns from his excursion into the impersonal world, he has acquired a poise and calm which enable him to deal with his worries in the best way, and he will in the meantime have experienced a genuine even if temporary happiness.
In a sentiment he would expand in his final years as he contemplated what makes a fulfilling life, he adds:
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.
Couple this fragment of the wholly nourishing The Conquest of Happiness with Kurt Vonnegut on the secret of happiness, then revisit Russell on the key to the good life, how to heal a divided world, and his magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the four desires driving all human behavior.
Published February 21, 2023