The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russellis a classic. It’s a kind of philosopher’s self help book that lays out the causes of unhappiness, followed by the causes of happiness and concluding with a logical recommendation of how to be happy. If you are familiar with Bertrand Russell, he was a masterful logician and his work was vast and influential so his logical dissection on the reasons of unhappiness and ways to resolve them presented an exciting proposition to the pragmatic reader. It’s worth mentioning that Russell was born into a very different life than many of us would have experienced. As a British aristocrat, wealthy and highly educated, his writing could sometimes seem out of touch with the times so he appeared to be an odd choice to tell us how to be happy when he seemed to have no reason not to be. His upbringing couldn’t be further from my own but yet, I read the The Conquest of Happiness and found plenty of common ground on the issues of depression (or as Russell prefers to put it — a lack of happiness) and a few clues to what may be causing people to be grow less happy in society today. Russell’s admirable purpose was ‘to suggest a cure for the ordinary day to day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer from’ and even though his own life was far from ordinary, he managed to do this so that it made sense no matter what your specific circumstances were.
So what were the causes of unhappiness according to Russell? His list highlighted these; self absorption and vanity that stems from narcissistic behaviors, excessive boredom or excitement, fatigue, competition, envy, sense of sin, persecution mania and fear of public opinion.
I’ll save you the enjoyment of reading Russell’s witty explanations but when you scan the list, it is striking that so much of this is amplified in modern life today when you reflect on our use of technology. Selfies switch the framing to ourselves, status and photos keep us obsessed about our perception and what other people like or don’t like. Our consumption of social networks could lead to these same causes that Russell identifies like envy, competition and feelings of excitement or boredom that are a likely side effect of living vicariously through influencers.
What about the causes of happiness? Can we attempt to change this direction of unhappiness if we try to create networks that do more of the things that make us happy? Russell offers these as the sources of happiness; zest, affection, family, work, impersonal interests and effort and resignation.
Some of these things come as no surprise as we know affection, family and work when harmonious are generous sources of happiness. But is turning up the happiness dial as simple as doing less social networking so we can make more time for those things or do we need to create a new type of happiness promoting network? One cause of happiness that we could use more of is the ‘impersonal interests’ which Russell describes as those interests that don’t obviously progress us in our life but that provide us with an outlet or distraction from the unhappy thoughts that may otherwise occupy us. In one line of the book Russell tries to sum it up in his chapter ‘Is happiness even possible?’ He boldly states ‘The secret to happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile’.
We have access to so much more to feed our appetite for new interests than in Russell’s time, so surely we would expect to be more happy.
But is technology really encouraging us to have interests as wide as possible or are we being led down a narrow path through personalization and recommendations?
Widening our interests is a big challenge as it depends on the willingness of a person to seek it in the first place and our online networks don’t always encourage this behavior. The contact and follower models can make us feel as if we are widening our interests while actually keep us firmly in our bubbles. Russell’s second part of his ‘secret’ advised keeping our reactions friendly, and while we have easy access to likes and shares, they are initially friendly but can quickly become hostile as human nature sways many of us to be curious and react strongly to negative trends.
The creators of our networks may not have set out to accelerate the causes of unhappiness. After all, to begin with networks were small and friendly, resulting in happiness as we discovered new and old friends to connect with. But over time, through excess or a natural decline, the behaviors the cause unhappiness have found a fertile home in our social networks and now we need to re-evaluate what these networks are doing for our happiness. Just as it’s a conquest in every day life, it will be a conquest for the designers of our networks. It’s in one of the final chapters about effort and resignation (as a cause of happiness) that may be most relevant for all of us — ‘A certain kind of resignation is involved in willingness to face the truth about ourselves; this kind, though it may involve pain in the first moments, affords ultimately a protection’. I think there is message here for the creators and consumers of networks — don’t fool ourselves into believing what we are doing is beneficial but instead find a new way to apply our effort that would really lead us to more happiness.