Chapter 1: What makes people unhappy?
My purpose is to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilised countries suffer, and which is all the more unbearable bscause, having no obvious external cause, it appears inescapable.
I was not born happy. In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other as essentially unattainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself.
Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.
The man who is only interested in himself is not admirable, and is not felt to be so. Consequently the man whose sole concern with the world is that it shall admire him is not likely to achieve his object.
A man may feel so completely thwarted that he seeks no form of satisfaction, but only distraction and oblivion. He then becomes a devotee of 'pleasure'. That is to say he seeks to make life bearable by becoming less alive. Drunkenness, for example, is temporary suicide; the happiness that it brings is merely negative, a momentary cessation of unhappiness.
Chapter 2: Byronic Unhappiness
The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else instead.
For modern Americans the point of view that I wish to consider has been set forth by Mr Joseph Wood Krutch in a book called The Modern Temper; for our grandfathers' generation it was set forth by Byron; for all time it was set forth by the writer of Ecclesiastes. Mr Krutch says: "Ours is a lost cause and there is no place for us in the natural universe, but we are not, for all that, sorry to be human. We should rather die as men than live as animals."
I have frequently experienced myself the mood in which I felt that all is vanity; I have emerged from it not by means of any philosophy, but owing to some imperative necessity of action. If your child is ill, you may be unhappy, but you will not feel that all is vanity; you will feel that the restoring of the child to health is a matter to be attended to regardless of the question whether there is ultimate value in human life or not. A rich man may, and often does, feel that all is vanity, but if he should happen to lose his money, he would feel that his next meal was by no means vanity.
The feeling is one born of a too easy satisfaction of natural needs. The human animal, like others, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle for life, and when by means of great wealth homo sapiens can gratify all his whims without effort, the mere absence of effort from his life removes an essential ingredient of happiness. The man who acquires easily things for which he feels only a very moderate desire concludes that the attainment of desire does not bring happiness. If he is of a philosophic disposition, he concludes that human life is essentially wretched, since the man who has all he wants is still unhappy. He forgets that to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.
The habit of looking to the future and thinking that the whole meaning of the present lies in what it will bring forth is a pernicious one.
Love is to be valued because it enhances all the best pleasures, such as music, and sunrise in mountains, and the sea under the full moon. A man who has never enjoyed beautiful things in the company of a woman whom he loved has not experienced to the full the magic power of which such things are capable.
To all the talented young men who wander about feeling that there is nothing in the world for them to do, I should say: "Give up trying to write, and, instead, try not to write. Go out into the world; become a pirate, a king in Borneo, a labourer in Soviet Russia; give yourself an existence in which the satisfaction of elementary physical needs will occupy all your energies."
Chapter 3: Competition
It is very singular how little men seem to realise that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which they remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level.
I do not deny that the feeling of success makes it easier to enjoy life. A painter, let us say, who has been obscure throughout his youth, is likely to become happier if his talent wins recognition. Nor do I deny that money, up to a certain point, is very capable of increasing happiness; beyond that point, I do not think it does so. What I do maintain is that success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.
Education used to be conceived very largely as a training in the capacity for enjoyment enjoyment, I mean, of those more delicate kinds that are not open to wholly uncultivated people. In the eighteenth century it was one of the marks of a 'gentleman' to take a discriminating pleasure in literature, pictures, and music.
The rich man of the present day tends to be of quite a different type. The result is that he does not know what to do with leisure.
This must inevitably be the case so long as success itself is represented as the purpose of life. Unless a man has been taught what to do with success after getting it, the achievement of it must inevitably leave him a prey to boredom.
We are killing ourselves out. We do not, on the average, have so much as two children per marriage; we do not enjoy life enough to wish to beget children. Those whose outlook on life causes them to feel so little happiness that they do not care to beget children are biologically doomed. Before very long they must be succeeded by somerthing gayer and jollier.
The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life.
Chapter 4: Boredom and Excitement
It is one of the essentials of boredom that one's faculties must not be fully occupied. Running away from enemies who are trying to take one's life is, I imagine, unpleasant, but certainly not boring.
The desire for excitement is very deep-seated in human beings, especially in males. I suppose that in the hunting stage it was more easily gratified than it has been since. The chase was exciting, war was exciting, courtship was exciting. But with the coming of agriculture life began to grow dull, except, of course, for the aristocrats, who remained, and still remain, in the hunting stage.
As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place.
A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.
All great books contain boring portions, and all great lives have contained uninteresting stretches.
The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth.
Chapter 5: Fatigue
The kind of fatigue that is most serious in the present day in advanced communities is nervous fatigue. One thing which causes fatigue without our being aware of it is the constant presence of strangers. The natural instinct of man, as of other animals, is to investigate every stranger of his species, with a view to deciding whether to behave to him in a friendly or hostile manner. This instinct has to be inhibited by those who travel in the underground in the rush-hour, and the result of inhibiting it is that they feel a general diffused rage against all the strangers with whom they are brought into this involuntary contact.
Voluntarily or involuntarily, of choice or of necessity, most moderns lead a nerve-racking life, and are continually too tired to be capable of enjoyment without the help of alcohol.
To a great extent fatigue in such cases is due to worry, and worry could be prevented by a better philosophy of life and a little more mental discipline. Most men and women are very deficient in control over their thoughts. I mean by this that they cannot cease to think about worrying topics at times when no action can be taken in regard to them.
The wise man thinks about his troubles only when there is some purpose in doing so; at other times he thinks about other things.
Our doings are not so important as we naturally suppose; our successes and failures do not after all matter very much. Even great sorrows can be survived; troubles which seem as if they must put an end to happiness for life fade with the lapse of time until it becomes almost impossible to remember their poignancy.
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. If you have shirked nothing in facing the worst possible issue, you will find that your worry disappears altogether, and is replaced by a kind of exhilaration.
A man who has learnt not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished.
Chapter 6: Envy
For all this the proper cure is mental discipline, the habit of not thinking profitless thoughts.
If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot, therefore, get away from envy by means of success alone.
By far the most important thing is to secure a life which is satisfying to instinct. The essentials of human happiness are simple, so simple that sophisticated people cannot bring themselves to admit what it is they really lack.
Whenever you happen to take your children to the Zoo you may observe in the eyes of the apes, when they are not performing gymnastic feats or cracking nuts, a strange strained sadness. One can almost imagine that they feel they ought to become men, but cannot discover the secret of how to do it. On the road of evolution they have lost their way; their cousins marched on and they were left behind. Something of the same strain and anguish seems to have entered the soul of civilised man.
Chapter 7: The Sense of Sin
An expansive and generous attitude towards other people not only gives happiness to others, but is an immense source of happiness to its possesser, since it causes him to be generally liked. But such an attitude is scarcely possible to the man haunted by a sense of sin.
Nothing is so dull as to be encased in self, nothing so exhilarating as to have attention and energy directed outwards.
The man divided against himself looks for excitement and distraction; he loves strong passions, not for sound reasons, but because for the moment they take him outside himself and prevent the painful necessity of thought.
Chapter 9: Fear of Public Opinion
For most young men and young women of exceptional merit adolescence is a time of great unhappiness. To their more ordinary companions it may be a time of gaiety and enjoyment, but for themselves they want something more serious, which they can find neither among their elders nor among their contemporaries.
An intelligent man who lives in a city as large as London or New York can generally find some congenial set in which it is not necessary to practise any constraint or hypocrisy.
Wherever possible, young people who find themselves out of harmony with their surroundings should endeavour to select some career which will give them a chance of congenial companionship, even if this should entail a considerable loss of income.
One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.
There is, of course, no point in deliberately flouting public opinion; this is still to be under its domination, though in a topsy-turvy way. But to be genuinely indifferent to it is both a strength and a source of happiness.
More and more it becomes possible to choose our companions on account of congeniality rather than on account of mere propinquity. Happiness is promoted by associations of persons with similar tastes and similar opinions.
Chapter 10: Is Happiness Still Possible?
From the conversation and the books of some of my friends I have been almost led to conclude that happiness in the modern world has become an impossibility. I find, however, that this view tends to be dissipated by introspection, foreign travel, and the conversation of my gardener.
When I was a boy I knew a man bursting with happiness whose business was digging wells. His happiness did not depend upon intellectual sources. It was based upon physical vigour, a sufficiency of work, and the overcoming of not insuperable obstacles in the shape of rock.
The happiness of my gardener is of the same species; he wages a perennial war against rabbits. Although well over seventy, he works all day and bicycles sixteen hilly miles to and from his work, but the fount of joy is inexhaustible, and it is 'they rabbits' that supply it.
Pleasures of achievement demand difficulties such that beforehand success seems doubtful although in the end it is usually achieved.
Of the more highly educated sections of the community, the happiest in the present day are the men of science. The reason for this is that the higher parts of their intelligence are wholly absorbed by their work, and are not allowed to intrude into regions where they have no functions to perform.
It must, I think, be admitted that the most intelligent young people in Westem countries tend to have that kind of unhappiness that comes of finding no adequate employment for their best talents.
Cynicism such as one finds very frequently among the most highly educated young men and women of the West results from the combination of comfort with powerlessness. Powerlessness makes people feel that nothing is worth doing, and comfort makes the painfulness of this feeling just endurable.
The pleasure of work is open to anyone who can develop some specialised skill, provided that he can get satisfaction from the exercise of his skill without demanding universal applause.
In taking to agriculture mankind decided that they would submit to monotony and tedium in order to diminish the risk of starvation. Companionship and cooperation are essential elements in the happiness of the average man, and these are to be obtained in industry far more fully than in agriculture.
Belief in a cause is a source of happiness to large numbers of people. I cannot urge the reader to believe that men should live exclusively upon nuts, although, so far as my observation goes, this belief invariably ensures perfect happiness.
But it is easy to find some cause which is in no degree fantastic, and those whose interest in any such cause is genuine are provided with an occupation for their leisure hours and a complete antidote to the feeling that life is empty.
Not so very far removed from the devotion to obscure causes is absorption in a hobby.
For my part, I collect rivers: I derive pleasure from having gone down the Volga and up the Yangtse, and regret very much having never seen the Amazon or the Orinoco. Simple as these emotions are, I am not ashamed of them. I remember meeting for the first time one of the leading literary men of America, a man whom I had supposed from his books to be filled with melancholy. But it so happened that at that moment the most crucial baseball results were coming through on the radio; he forgot me, literature, and all the other sorrows of our sublunary life, and yelled with joy.
Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things.
The kind that makes for happiness is the kind that likes to observe people and finds pleasure in their individual traits. The person whose attitude towards others is genuinely of this kind will be a source of happiness and a recipient of reciprocal kindness. The same idiosyncrasies which would get on another man's nerves will be to him a source of gentle amusement. To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness.
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.
Chapter 11: Zest
All disenchantment is to me a malady, which, it is true, certain circumstances may render inevitable, but which none the less, when it occurs, is to be cured as soon as possible, not to be regarded as a higher form of wisdom.
We are all prone to the malady of the introvert, who, with the manifold spectacle of the world spread out before him, turns away and gazes only upon the emptiness within. But let us not imagine that there is anything grand about the introvert's unhappiness.
Take again such a matter as travel: some men will travel through many countries, going always to the best hotels, eating exactly the same food as they would eat at home, meeting the same idle rich whom they would meet at home, conversing on the same topics upon which they converse at their own dinner-table. When they return, their only feeling is one of relief at having done with the boredom of expensive locomotion. Other men, wherever they go, see what is characteristic, make the acquaintance of people who typify the locality, observe whatever is of interest either historically or socially, eat the food of the country, learn its manners and its language, and come home with a new stock of pleasant thoughts for winter evenings.
In all these different situations the man who has the zest for life has the advantage over the man who has none.
The ancients, as everyone knows, regarded moderation as one of the essential virtues. Many passions may be carried to excess. In the case of the dipsomaniac this is obvious: men drink in order to forget. If they had no spectres in their lives, they would not find drunkenness more agreeable than sobriety.
This is typical of all excessive and one-sided passions. It is not pleasure in the object itself that is sought, but oblivion.
There are, it is true, border-line cases. What should we say of the man who runs mad risks in aeroplanes or on mountain tops, because life has become irksome to him?
At every moment of life the civilised man is hedged about by restrictions of impulse: if he happens to feel cheerful he must not sing or dance in the street, while if he happens to feel sad he must not sit on the pavement and weep, for fear of obstructing pedestrian traffic. In youth his liberty is restricted at school, in adult life it is restricted throughout his working hours. All this makes zest more difficult to retain, for the continual restraint tends to produce weariness and boredom.
Chapter 12: Affection
One of the chief causes of lack of zest is the feeling that one is unloved, whereas conversely the feeling of being loved promotes zest more than anything else does.
General self-confidence towards life comes more than anything else from being accustomed to receive as much of the right sort of affection as one has need for.
It is affection received, not affection given, that causes this sense of security, though it arises most of all from affection which is reciprocal.
The child from whom for any reason parental affection is withdrawn may set to work at a surprisingly early age to meditate on life and death and human destiny. He becomes an introvert, melancholy at first, but seeking ultimately the unreal consolations of some system of philosophy or theology. The desire to make an intelligible system or partern out of it is at bottom an outcome of fear, in fact a kind of agoraphobia or dread of open spaces.
In the best kind of affection a man hopes for a new happiness rather than for escape from an old unhappiness.
It is a characteristic frequently associated with great ambition, and is rooted, I should say, in an unduly one-sided view of what makes human happiness. Ambition which excludes affection from its purview is generally the result of some kind of anger or hatred against the human race, produced by unhappiness in youth, by injustices in later life, or by any of the causes which lead to persecution mania. A too powerful ego is a prison from which a man must escape if he is to enjoy the world to the full. A capacity for genuine affection is one of the marks of the man who has escaped from this prison of self.
Chapter 13: The family
Affection of parents for children and of children for parents is capable of being one of the greatest sources of happiness, but in fact at the present day the relations of parents and children are, in nine cases out of ten, a source of unhappiness to both parties, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a source of unhappiness to at least one of the two parties. The adult who wishes to have a happy relation with his own children or to provide a happy life for them must reflect deeply upon parenthood, and, having reflected, must act wisely.
I have found the happiness of parenthood greater than any other that I have experienced. I believe that when circumstances lead men or women to forgo this happiness, a very deep need remains ungratified, and that this produces a dissatisfaction and listlessness of which the cause may remain quite unknown. To be happy in this world, especially when youth is past, it is necessary to feel oneself not merely an isolated individual whose day will soon be over, but part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future.
Those who have allowed their procreative impulses to become atrophied have separated themselves from the stream of life, and in so doing have run a grave risk of becoming desiccated. For them, unless they are exceptionally impersonal, death ends all. The world that shall come after them does not concern them, and because of this their doings appear to themselves trivial and unimportant.
Chapter 14: Work
I think that, provided work is not excessive in amount, even the dullest work is to most people less painful than idleness.
To begin with, it fills a good many hours of the day without the need of deciding what one shall do.
Most of the idle rich suffer unspeakable boredom as the price of their freedom from drudgery.
Continuity of purpose is one of the most essential ingredients of happiness in the long run, and for most men this comes chiefly through their work.
Every man who has acquired some unusual skill enjoys exercising it until it has become a matter of course, or until he can no longer improve himself.
There is, however, another element possessed by the best work, which is even more important as a source of happiness than is the exercise of skill. This is the element of constructiveness. In some work, though by no means in most, something is built up which remains as a monument when the work is completed.
The satisfaction to be derived from success in a great constructive enterprise is one of the most massive that life has to offer. Nothing can rob a man of the happiness of successful achievement in an important piece of work.
The power to produce great art is very often, though by no means always, associated with a temperamental unhappiness, so great that but for the joy which the artist derives from his work he would be driven to suicide. We cannot therefore maintain that even the greatest work must make a man happy; we can only maintain that it must make him less unhappy.
Human beings differ profoundly in regard to the tendency to regard their lives as a whole: To some men it is natural to do so. To others life is a series of detached incidents without directed movement and without unity. I think the former sort are more likely to achieve happiness than the latter, since they will gradually build up those circumstances from which they can derive contentment and self-respect, whereas the others will be blown about by the winds of circumstance now this way, now that, without ever arriving at any haven. Consistent purpose is not enough to make life happy, but it is an almost indispensable condition of a happy life. And consistent purpose embodies itself mainly in work.
Chapter 15: Impersonal Interests
One of the sources of unhappiness, fatigue, and nervous strain is inability to be interested in anything that is not of practical importance in one's own life. What is restful about external interests is the fact that they do not call for any action. Making decisions and exercising volition are very fatiguing.
If, on the other hand, you have as part of the habitual furniture of your mind the past ages of man, his slow and partial emergence out of barbarism, and the brevity of his total existence in comparison with astronomical epochs… If you have attained to this outlook, a certain deep happiness will never leave you, whatever your personal fate may be.
I should impress upon the mind of the young the greatness of which the individual is capable, and the knowledge that throughout all the depths of stellar space nothing of equal value is known to us. Realising the brevity and minuteness of human life, he will realise also that in individual minds is concentrated whatever of value the known universe contains.
In emancipation from the fears that beset the slave of circumstance he will experience a profound joy, and through all the vicissitudes of his outward life he will remain in the depths of his being a happy man.
Chapter 16: Effort and Resignation
One respect in which it is necessary to preserve the golden mean is as regards the balance between effort and resignation. Both doctrines have had extreme advocates. The doctrine of resignation has been preached by saints and mystics; the doctrine of effort has been preached by efficiency experts and muscular Christians.
Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstances. For in a world so full of avoidable and unavoidable misfortunes, of illness and psychological tangles, of struggle and poverty and ill will, the man or woman who is to be happy must find ways of coping with the multitudinous causes of unhappiness by which each individual is assailed. In some rare cases no great effort may be required. A man of easy good nature, who inherits an ample fortune and enjoys good health together with simple tastes, may slip through life comfortably and wonder what all the fuss is about.
But such cases are exceptional. Happiness must be, for most men and women, an achievement rather than a gift of the gods.
Resignation also its part to play in the conquest of happiness, and it is a part no less essential than that played by effort. The wise man, though he will not sit down under preventable misfortunes, will not waste time and emotion upon such as are unavoidable. Many people get into fret or a fury over every little thing that goes wrong, and in this way waste a great deal of energy that might be more usefully employed.
The attitude required is that of doing one's best while leaving the issue to fate.
Some people are unable to bear with patience even those minor troubles which make up, if we permit them to do so, a very large part of life. They are furious when they miss a train, transported with rage if their dinner is badly cooked, sunk in despair if the chimney smokes, and vowing vengeance against the whole industrial order when their clothes fail to return from the sanitary steam laundry.
Worry and fret and irritation are emotions which serve no purpose.
The man who has become emancipated from the empire of worry will find life a much more cheerful affair than it used to be while he was perpetually being irritated. Personal idiosyncrasies of acquaintances, which formerly made him wish to scream, will now seem merely amusing. When Mr A. for the three hundred and forty-seventh time relates the anecdote of the Bishop of Tierra del Fuego, he amuses himself by noting the score, and feels no inclination to attempt a vain diversion by an anecdote of his own. When his bootlace breaks just as he is in a hurry to catch an early morning train, he reflects after the appropriate expletives, that in the history of the cosomos the event in question has no very great importance. When he is interrupted in a proposal of marriage by a visit of a tedious neighbour, he considers that all mankind have been liable to disaster, with the exception of Adam, and that even he had his troubles.
Chapter 17: The Happy Man
It is thought by many that happiness is impossible without a creed of a more or less religious kind. lt is thought by many who are themselves unhappy that their sorrows have complicated and highly intellectualised sources. I do not believe that such things are genuine causes of either happiness or unhappiness; I think they are only symptoms. The man who is unhappy will, as a rule, adopt an unhappy creed, while the man who is happy will adopt a happy creed.
Where outward circumstances are not definitely unfortunate, a man should be able to achieve happiness, provided that his passions and interests are directed outward, not inward. It should be our endeavour therefore to aim at avoiding self-centred passions and at acquiring those affections and those interests which will prevent our thoughts from dwelling perpetually upon ourselves. It is not the nature of most men to be happy in a prison, and the passions which shut us up in ourselves constitute one of the worst kinds of prisons. Among such passions some of the commonest are fear, envy, the sense of sin, self-pity and self-admiration. In all these our desires are centred upon ourselves: there is no genuine interest in the outer world, but only a concern lest it should in some way injure us or fail to feed our ego.
One of the great drawbacks to self-centred passions is that they afford so little variety in life. 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.
The happy man is the man who has free affections and wide interests, who secures his happiness through these interests and affections and through the fact that they, in turn, make him an object of interest and affection to many others. To be the recipient of affection is a potent cause of happiness.
What then can a man do who is unhappy because he is encased in self? So long as he continues to think about the causes of his unhappiness, he continues to be self-centred and therefore does not get outside the vicious circle; if he is to get outside it, it must be by genuine interests, not by simulated interests adopted merely as a medicine.
What the objective interests are to be that will arise in you when you have overcome the disease of self-absorption must be left to the spontaneous workings of your nature and of external circumstances. Only what genuinely interests you can be of any use to you, but you may be pretty sure that genuine objective interests will grow up as soon as you have learnt not to be immersed in self.
In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves. Through such interests a man comes to feel himself part of the stream of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard-ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collision. The happy man is the man whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.