Philosophy and Self-help

The study of philosophy may not resinate with concepts of happiness…certainly when I think back to some late night library essay writing sessions, happiness was not my primary emotion. Regardless, happiness is a theme that is dealt within philosophy. I have chosen to read The Conquest of Happiness to see how king of logical thinking Bertrand Russell suggests I go about it. Russell’s approach is to take you through the major causes of unhappiness and then the choices that one can make that, may, result in “The Happy Man”

  • Zest

“Appetite for possible things, upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depend”

The above quote is key to understanding Russell’s self-help style advice – he is referring to a ‘zest’ for life, in the way thirst relates to a drink of water – zest relates to life. However simply being thirsty does not lead necessarily to drinking water and your needs being met, for Russell there must be some effort, we cannot gain satisfaction from gratification that simply falls into our laps. This is why he calls his book  the conquest of happiness.

“Absence of effort from his life removes an essential ingredient of happiness”

It seems then, that Russell is suggesting that we need to have goals in our lives that we can achieve, but that we do not achieve without some effort. I have recently started to run and have signed up to run in a 5km race, and I cannot help but feel that this is exactly the kind of thing that Russell would approve of, as it signing up for the race neatly encapsulates the idea that “Pleasures of achievement demand difficulties such that beforehand success seems doubtful although in the end it is usually achieved”. I always feel a slight apprehension when I tie up my shoe laces, but this fear dilutes when I see the distance add up. Although not quite running the 5km, seeing 3.5km on my running app lets me know that I will be able to push through.

This leads to second bit of advice – the enemy of our natural zest for life, is that of boredom. Boredom engrained by habit and mistaken views of the way the world works. We all have a desire, says Russell, to be excited, and our actions and daily life should respect this need for excitement. He notes there was potentially excitement in hunting and foraging, however this was gone when agriculture arrived. There was potentially excitement on going on nights out to bars/pubs/clubs to meet someone new, but now dating apps have changed this…and so on. We are all bored, and stifled by our usual lives our usual suburban homes  and our usual forms of entertainment.

  • Anxiety

This is the opposite of zest – it is the state of modern people feeling overwhelmed and fatigued. We need to stop with worrying and being living again. How?

“when you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, ‘Well, after all, that would not matter so very much’, you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent.”

  • “The disease of self-absorption”

This is the key obstruction to happiness, and that to happy, one needs to recognise that they are only a tiny part of the world.

“The man who loves only himself cannot, it is true, be accused of promiscuity in his affections, but he is bound in the end to suffer intolerable boredom from the invariable sameness of the object of his devotion.”

When you are ‘self-absorbed’ in this way, others serve only as comparisons, to be judged against and evaluated. The worry that these people have is not, how well they  will do in their exam results – but that they do better than the person who sat next to them in class? Thinking in this way is fatal in terms of achieving happiness, and it must be overcome. His advice on how to do this is to convince yourself that even if you were bottom of the class, and inferior to your peers, that this would not invalidate you  – your life would still be worth living.

Essentially do not compare yourself to others and enjoy your work and your own results.




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