Self-help: The Classics: No 1 Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness

Tim LeBon
12 min readJan 5, 2020

I used to produce an annual top ten of personal development and self-help books that I’d found most useful in my work as a psychotherapist, philosophical life coach and indeed in my personal and family life. I tended to get two responses. One, from enthusiasts went like this :- “I’d love to read them all — but I haven’t got time!” — please please can I have a potted version of the best bits? Other people of course were a bit sniffy about self-help books wanted a more critical appraisal — “Which bits work in practice? Are there any holes in their ideas?” were their questions. So I set about writing accounts of some of the best self-help books of all time, which would satisfy both camps — the best bits, with some critical appraisal. Today we are starting with The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell. Advice on how to be happy, from one of the great thinkers of our time.

Who would not welcome advice about how to live well from a really wise person? Someone with a deep understanding of the great thinkers, who has lived as well as thought, and is willing to share their insights. More than all the self-proclaimed self-help gurus, Bertrand Russell stands out as such a man. Undoubtedly one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, he was also a Nobel Prize winner, campaigner, journalist, teacher, political prisoner, husband and parent. We no longer have personal access to Russell; he died in 1970, aged 98. But he bequeathed to us all a little book, written when he was 58, which sums up much of his wisdom and experience. Called The Conquest of Happiness, it is the first self-help book I read and, appropriately, the first book I will write about in this series of articles about self-help classics.

Bertrand Russell is probably the best-known English philosopher of the twentieth century. Russell was born into the aristocracy in 1867 but by the time he was three, both his parents were dead, and he was brought up by formidable, puritan “Victorian” grandparents — his grandfather had actually served as Prime Minister of England in his time. Russell showed an early interest in philosophy and mathematics and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1894. He soon became a Fellow there and produced possibly his most famous works Principia Mathematica in 1910 (with Alfred North Whitehead). The First World War shattered Russell’s world, when he found himself in jail for 6 months as a result of his pacifist views. He lost his fellowship, and at the time of writing The Conquest of Happiness, he was earning his living mainly from writing and lecturing. Russell had also started an experimental school. Later he was to lecture in the United States, where he wrote The History Of Western Philosophy (1945) for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1950). Russell married four times and wrote many more books, spanning popular philosophy, academic philosophy and social criticism. In the 1960s, the nonagenarian Russell was an active member of the peace movement.

Russell’s Project: to Conquer Happiness

Make no mistake, this is no abstract philosophical treatise — it is a recipe for good living, written for the likes of you and me. Russell’s work is based on two assumptions. First, happiness needs to be conquered. You can’t expect to waltz through life reaping happiness without putting in some thought and effort. But — and this is why The Conquest of Happiness is essentially an optimistic book- if you do make this effort, you can, given average fortune, attain happiness.

The conquest of happiness comes in three stages: first you need to learn about the principles that lead to happiness, next internalise them and, finally, put them into practice. Unless you had unusually wise parents, you must forget what you learnt on your parents’ knee; you must also put aside what teachers, friends and, especially, priests have told us. You must replace these ideas with ones that really will make you happy. One way to do this is to read The Conquest of Happiness, for what Russell has done here is describe fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. This is the essential first stage, but it’s important to realise that Russell does not think that it is sufficient. Next, you have to really internalise these principles — it’s not enough to repeat them parrot fashion, you have to really feel them as you do your feeling of wanting to protect your own children. A superficial reading of the book might not pick up the point, yet Russell emphasises it several times.

“Let your conscious beliefs be so vivid and emphatic that they make an impression upon your unconscious and be strong enough to cope with the impressions made by your nurse or your mother when you were an infant.”.

The third stage — the transformation of your life — will happen automatically if the first two steps are carried out. For example, take a theme close to Russell’s heart — that you shouldn’t feel shameful about sex. The first step involves realising at a conscious level that, whatever the priest said, consensual sex is part of a happy life, not a sin. The second step is to fully internalise this belief, to feel it, not just to recite it; if you’ve really done this, then the pay-off will be that a sense of shame will no longer stop you leading a sexually fulfilling life.

If you can follow these three steps for each of the fourteen characteristics described by Russell you will give yourself the best chance of achieving not just happiness but also freedom from what the Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza called ‘human bondage’. You will no longer be flotsam and jetsam, acted on by the forces of society and the commands of your parents, but a self-determining human being. You will be happy and free.

This framework is given flesh by Russell’s analysis of the fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. Each chapter consists of a justification of why the chosen characteristic is good or bad, nice distinctions between its various senses and a discussion of other writers’ views and Russell’s practical advice for attaining happiness. Sometimes Russell digresses to make some rather tangential remarks about society and education and other personal concerns. Since our concern is with how to be happy, rather than Russell’s other preoccupations — such as the difficulty of obtaining good housemaids in the 1920s — this will be our focus.

Russell divides the conquest of happiness into two separate tasks: first conquering unhappiness, which will give you peace of mind, and then attaining happiness, actually living a joyful, zestful life. Russell begins with the characteristics of unhappy people, before going on to look at happy people, and so shall we.

“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 as well.”

Some people are made more unhappy by the thought that life is meaningless and that unhappiness is mankind’s natural condition. Russell thinks that such people are projecting. They draw false conclusions about the human situation from their own temporary malaise. He calls this sort of unhappiness ‘Byronic Unhappiness’, bringing to mind the self-indulgent, self-pitying melancholy of the poet. For when you come to actually examine the arguments these melancholics put forward, they aren’t actually very strong. Consider the famous passage from one such famous melancholic, the anonymous writer of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament. It includes the lines:-

There is no new thing under the sun.

There is no remembrance of former things.

No new thing under the sun? What about skyscrapers and aeroplanes? asks Russell, and, we might add, what about space travel and computers? No remembrance of former things? We, thousands of years later, remember and are still influenced by these very words.

No, the happy person will not find these or similar arguments convincing. There is plenty to enjoy in life, and this enjoyment makes life worthwhile. Yet it is true that many people -including Russell himself-sometimes find themselves in a mood when the words of Ecclesiastes ring true. Russell suggests that deep moods of melancholy are best tackled not by argument but by ‘the imperative for action’. If your sick child urgently needs medicine, you won’t be thinking ‘everything is vanity’.

If you went to Russell complaining of melancholy, his advice, I think would be this. Don’t be ensnared by romantically gloomy pronouncements about the vanity of human existence. Examine the arguments behind them, and you will usually find them false. If your mood is such that you do see some truth in them, take the pragmatic line of contemplating something else and in time the call for action will pull you out of your mood.

2) Don’t get caught in the competitive treadmill

“Success is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it”.

Those for whom life is one long struggle for success are unlikely to be happy. If success necessitates getting up at the crack of dawn, having a long and stressful journey to work, working long hours and returning home too tired to enjoy leisure or one’s family — then wouldn’t you be better off being a bit less “successful”?

Russell’s remedy is to recognise “the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life.” Think about how much effort you put in to being one up on other people and compare this with the effort you put into fun and enjoyment. Direct your efforts to attain a variety of all the ingredients of happiness, not just success.

3) Develop the right attitude towards boredom and excitement

“A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper. A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life.”

An unhealthy attitude to boredom and excitement is a recipe for unhappiness. Demanding a life of total excitement is both unrealistic and unhealthy. Here Russell is thinking mainly of the disastrous long-term consequences of drugs, drink and gambling. Craving excitement all the time is unhealthy, so you need to learn to tolerate some boredom. But that’s not the whole story, because boredom can be a sign that you are choosing too passive, indoor pastimes. You may need to take stock of the type of activities most frequently engage in, and ask ourselves whether you are sufficiently active and in contact with nature.

“I have seen a boy of 2”, says Russell, “who had been kept in London, taken out for the first time to walk in green country. The season was winter and everything was wet and muddy. To the adult eye there was nothing to cause delight, but in the boy there sprang up a strange ecstasy; he kneeled in the wet ground and put his face in the grass, and gave utterance to half-articulate cries of delight. The joy he was experiencing was primitive, simple and massive.”

You should learn to tolerate boredom, but if this boredom is a signal that you are too passive, or in too little contact with nature, then you should become change accordingly — the best sort of ‘trips’, Russell might have said (but, as far as I know, didn’t), are those to the countryside.

4) Make your worries concrete, don’t suppress them

“At first [my public speaking] terrified me… I dreaded the ordeal so much that I always hoped that I might break my leg before I had to make a speech… Gradually I taught myself to feel that it did not matter whether I spoke well or ill, the universe would remain much the same in either case. I found that the less I cared whether I spoke well or badly, the less badly I spoke.”

Anxiety and worry is a cause of great unhappiness. People often try to avoid thinking about things that worry them. Russell’s advice is to do precisely the opposite. You need to face worries head on, and ask yourself the question:- ‘What is the worst thing that can happen?’ Vagueness is the enemy of serenity. When you think of concrete events, they are not usually as impossible to deal with as your demons would have you believe. What if you did miss that plane? You’d end up on the next one, which wouldn’t be such a terrible disaster. Occasionally the worst may appear pretty bad. Then, according to Russell, you should remind yourself of your global insignificance. From the point of view of the universe, says Russell, your troubles are nought.

5) Avoid envy, and if you have to make comparisons turn envy into admiration

“ “Envy … consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. … If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.”

The trick is to stop thinking in terms of comparisons. “When anything pleasant occurs it should be enjoyed to the full.” Don’t play the game of thinking about even more pleasant things, as then you’ll never enjoy the present. If you find the habit of making comparisons too hard to break, then turn your envy into admiration, its more constructive cousin. “Whoever wishes to increase human happiness must wish to increase admiration and to diminish envy.”

6) Don’t let your early influences make you feel unjustified guilt or shame

“Whenever you begin to feel remorse for an act which your reason tells you is not wicked, examine the causes of your feeling of remorse, and convince yourself in detail of their absurdity.”

Russell’s own term for the sixth habit of highly unhappy people, ‘a sense of sin’, has a rather Victorian ring to it. The moral teaching -especially about sexuality- received from a twenty-first century parent is far removed from the Victorian era. But once one makes the imaginative leap from purely sexual and religious matters to guilt and shame originating in rules learnt in early childhood, his advice still holds good. A ‘sense of sin’ can apply, for example, to sexual orientation or not living up to your parents’ standards. Russell’s solution, as quoted above, is to compel the unconscious to take note of the rational beliefs that govern your conscious thoughts. You must make up your mind about what you rationally believe, and be vigilant about not allowing irrational beliefs to pass unchallenged.

7) Don’t feel a misplaced sense of injustice

“We are all familiar with the type of person … who, according to his own account, is perpetually the victim of ingratitude, unkindness and treachery. “

I expect you know people who habitually cast themselves in the role of victim, and suffer from what Russell nicely terms “an inflated sense of injustice”. People who have a rather high opinion of their own merits, and expect everyone else to share their view. But human nature is such that this expectation sets one up for a fall, a point Russell makes rather amusingly. “Very few people can resist saying malicious things about their acquaintances, and even on occasions about their friends; yet when people hear that anything has been said against themselves they are filled with indignant amazement.”

Since it’s quite impossible to be happy if you feel that everybody is ill-treating you, Russell’s four rules to prevent ‘persecution mania’ are worth thinking about:-

1) Remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself.

2) Do not over-estimate your own merits.

3) Do not expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself.

4) Don’t imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any special desire to persecute you.

8) Don’t care too much about what other people think

“There is too much respect paid to the opinion of others, both in great matters and in small ones. 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”

Taking too much notice of what other people think can obviously make you unhappy. Russell informs us, in a rather liberating way I think, that, as long as your acts are not positively anti-social, there really is no good reason to take any notice at all of what other people think. Pursuing your own personal tastes makes you happy, so to deny them because of societies’ dictates will clearly reduce your happiness.

“We should be natural, and should follow [our] spontaneous tastes in so far as these are not definitely anti-social.”

Such is Bertrand Russell’s advice about how to avoid unhappiness. Russell would say that for them to be most helpful to you, you have to really internalise them, which means not only knowing them intellectually but also feeling them and knowing how they apply to your own case. To help achieve this, for Russell’s advice and that of the other self-help classics, I have devised a number of personal development activities which will follow in the next article.

Originally published at



Tim LeBon

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