Bertrand Russell on How to Conquer Happiness

Tim LeBon
6 min readJan 18, 2020

Self Help Classics series, no 1 continued

In an earlier post we looked at the background to the great philosopher Bertrand Russell’s self-help classic The Conquest of Happiness and outlined his tips for avoiding misery. Now we will find out how he thought we could actually conquer happiness, as promised by the title of his book.

Bertrand Russell on How to Conquer Happiness

Having told us how to avoid the thorns of unhappiness, Russell moves on to the question of how to enjoy the flowers of happiness. His personal garden contains six such roses: zest, affection, the family, work, impersonal interests and the right balance between effort and resignation. (Note: I have not changed Russell’s language in the quotes below, but they were of his time, so when he says “man” I read it as “person”).

  1. Take a lively and friendly interest in a lot of things
“Zest is the most universal and distinctive mark of happy men”. (Bertrand Russell)

‘Zest’ is Russell’s word for the first way to conquer happiness, by taking a friendly interest in things and people, and having the capacity to enjoy things for their own sake. Sherlock Holmes is the example Russell gives of someone with zest, presumably for his enthusiasm and level of interest in things. Tigger might be also be chosen as a contrasting example, for his energy and sense of fun.

Zest is a very great good.

“The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities of happiness he has, and the less he is at the mercy of fate, since if he loses one thing he can fall back upon another.”

But you need wisdom to be appropriately zestful. If you are wise, your activities will complement each other, and be neither too similar nor too contradictory. The way you exercise zest will also depend on your circumstances.

“Some passions can be indulged to almost any extent … others cannot. The man, let us say, who loves chess, if he happens to be a bachelor with independent means, need not restrict his passion in any degree, whereas if he has a wife and children and no independent means, he will have to restrict it severely”

2) Be affectionate

“Affection in the sense of a genuine reciprocal interest for two persons in each other, not solely as means to each other’s good, is one of the most important elements of real happiness”

Being affectionate and receiving affection can bring great happiness. Russell doesn’t think this needs much argument (and you may well agree). But it is also true that many people are not good at giving or receiving affection. Perhaps you are one of them. How could you have more affection in your life? Russell suggests four strategies:-

a) Appear to demand as little affection as possible — that way you will receive more of it. “Human nature is so constructed that it gives affection most readily to those who seem least to demand it.”

b) Give affection as part of the expression of your zest for life.

c) Aim for reciprocal affection

“The man whose ego is so enclosed within steel walls that … enlargement of it is impossible misses the best that life has to offer, however successful he may be in his career… It reaches its acme with romantic love and with parental love”

d) Do not be cautious in love. “Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness.”

3) Be a parent, and a good one.

“I have found the happiness of parenthood greater than any other that I have experienced”.

When talking of the family, Russell is thinking mainly of parenthood. Parenthood can be wonderful, says Russell, because it provides extension of yourself, in a sense prolonging your life beyond death.Parenthood also gives you a unique and”intimate blend of power and tenderness”. Yet, he asserts, in nine cases out of ten, parent/child relationships can be a source of unhappiness to at least one party. This tragic paradox is best tackled in two ways. Firstly, give sufficient time to your children (recall that one of the things Russell has against so-called ‘success’ is that it too often fails to allow this). Secondly, balance your love of parental power with your desire for the child’s good

“The child should as soon as possible learn to be independent in as many ways as possible, which is unpleasant to the power impulse of a parent.”

4) Do interesting, varied and constructive work

“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.”

Any work is good, in so far is it prevents boredom, which in Russell’s view is the most underestimated evil. Work is also the most realistic means through which you can gain success. Work is good, and interesting and constructive work is really good.

‘Nothing can rob a man of the happiness of successful achievement in an important piece of work, unless it be the proof that after all his work was bad.”

Not everyone realises that the Shakespearean sonnet (Sonnet 18) starting with the lines “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is an elegy on work as well as romantic love.The sonnet concludes with the lines

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, so long lives this.”,

referring to his verse.

Whilst we cannot all aspire to be Shakespeare, we all have it within us to carry out interesting and constructive work. What you find interesting is of course partly a matter of personal taste. But Russell proposes a universal connection between interesting work and the exercise of an improvable skill. Find work that is interesting, varied, creative and skilful and you will find purpose and stimulation -”an indispensable condition of a happy life”.

5) Cultivate minor impersonal interests

“[Cultivate] minor interests which fill [your] leisure and afford relaxation from the tenseness of [your] more serious preoccupations.”

Cultivating as many interests as you can is really just common sense. The more interests you have, the more opportunities you have to be happy. More interestingly, Russell also connects such ‘minor’ interests as playing football and collecting stamps with avoiding fatigue and anxiety. You need activities to provide variety from your main work and take your mind off them.

“Watching games, going to the theatre, playing golf are all irreproachable from this point of view.”

When imprisoned for his opposition to the first war Russell read a lot of detective stories, others might play chess or watch football.Russell would advise you to try out a variety of interests and hobbies, and practice the most satisfying of them as a contrast from the ‘day job’ and a source of both tranquillity and happiness in your life.

6) Achieve the right balance between effort and resignation

“The attitude required is that of doing one’s best while leaving the issue to fate”

Bertrand Russell & his wife Edith Russell lead anti-nuclear march by the Committee of 100 in London on Sat 18 Feb 1961 (source:,_Feb_1961.jpg)

Whilst effort is often essential if you are going to achieve what you want, there sometimes comes a point where it’s better to resign yourself to let fate take its course. What is required is an Aristotelian ‘golden mean’, the right balance between effort and resignation. For “efficiency in a practical task is not proportional to the emotion that you put into it; indeed, emotion is sometimes an obstacle to efficiency”. Russell’s advice is very similar to the Serenity Prayer — ‘God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to tell the difference’ and predates Neibhur’s formulation of it.You need to recognise that you often need to put effort in to achieve what you want, whilst remembering that when you can do no more, the best attitude is resignation, not more effort.

So these are Russell’s tips about how to conquer happiness. How many of them do you follow? What would it be like to experiment with one that takes your fancy a week, noting how it works out for you? Of course some of them are a bit more of a long-term project (parenthood, interesting varied work) and may be outside our control. In a future article I will assess Russell’s ideas, in the light of both modern psychotherapy and positive psychology. But what do you think?

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Tim LeBon

London-based author & CBT accredited therapist & philosophical life coach. I write mainly about Stoicism, Positive Psychology & therapy.