I have really enjoyed Bertrand Russell’s book The Conquest of Happiness and thought I would share some more thoughts that I had while pondering it. Let me start with the title. The word “conquest” conjures up an image of a one-time momentous force put forth to achieve the goal, happiness. It seems to imply that we have to struggle to climb a difficult mountain, but once we find the proper trail and put forth the needed effort, we arrive at the peak and have conquered it – as though happiness is a specific goal to be achieved once and for all.
Or maybe happiness is achieved not by the conquest of happiness, but rather by the conquest and defeat of unhappiness. As though unhappiness were a fire-breathing dragon in our lives that requires suiting up in armor, mounting our horse, and riding up in order to slay it with our sword. Only then, after we have conquered and slain the dragon of unhappiness can we find true happiness.
Perhaps the term pursuit would make for a more proper title on achieving happiness. The pursuit of happiness sounds like it could be more accurate. We are always pursuing happiness, even when we are not consciously thinking about this pursuit. But pursuit also conjures up an image of a quest that terminates in a successful one-time accomplishment. It would be like when we used to play capture the flag, chasing the opponent with the flag, and then achieving the goal when we have managed to grab the flag.
“Pursuit” also provides me with the image of something that is sought, but never, or seldom, actually found. It would be similar to the activity of “treasure hunting,” which is usually long on the hunting and somewhat short on the treasure actually found. Then again, most of the happiness that comes from the activity of treasure hunting is related to sharing the effort and making the effort, as opposed to an actual find. I’ve been told fishing is similar – we say we are going “fishing,” not that we are going “catching.”
Human nature is such that we often turn the pursuit of happiness into the pursuit of unhappiness. It’s not that we are pursuing unhappiness, but rather we are being pursued by unhappiness. Our struggles, our hurts, habits, and hang-ups are not only pursuing us, but we feel the easiest and quickest solution is to escape our pursuers. What we need is to confront our pursuers and put forth the effort to slay our dragons. The result will be a significant and long-term increase in our happiness.
We need to avoid the temporary escape that so often seems the best path. It’s not just wine that has seemed to me in the past to be an effective escape. I had a real problem with being a workaholic as well. It was too easy to bury myself in work, especially when there was an interesting and challenging project. After all, I was doing my best to be a good provider for my family, right?
In Even When the Pain is Bad, Suicide is Never the Right Answer I discussed using drugs or alcohol to escape emotional pain, and that people sometimes feel overwhelmed when they find that the escape is temporary. In Eat, Drink and Be Merry I discussed using wine when I didn’t feel comfortable. And I shared a couple of commands from Ecclesiastes – eat, drink and be merry (glad) v8:15, or A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work, v2:24. The whole idea is this: we want to be merry or happy and sometimes we turn to food or wine or work in an attempt to achieve that. But the writer of Ecclesiastes made it clear that when the pursuit of happiness is really an escape from unhappiness, it is pointless – like chasing the wind.
Bertrand Russell observes that the best kind of affection, what I would call Better Love, is when a man hopes for a new happiness rather than hope for escape from an old unhappiness. What about you? What struggles or unhappiness are you trying to escape? I have found that the writer of Ecclesiastes and Bertrand Russell are both right – it’s better to confront my struggles, examine my ruts of habit, and pursue and conquer, continually, new happiness rather than chase the wind. Again, what about you?