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The Conquest Of Happiness

Mr. Koon has written on this important topic and I have to agree with him on this. The only quibble I have is that Bertrand Russell is a known atheist - hence his framing of happiness has to be "without God/religion". Still, its a wonderful template that emanates from a massive amount of introspection, trying to find one's place on earth, and leaving it a better place than when we arrive.

The conquest of happiness

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WEDNESDAY, 03 MARCH 2010 08:04

The Perak Academy is a non-profit body which organizes projects and activities involving intellectual discourse, research, writing, fine arts and performing arts.

It organizes the popular 'Perak Lectures” series with speakers of national and international standing invited to speak on a variety of topics aimed at stimulating and disseminating intellectual discussion. Below we reproduce a recent talk delivered to the Academy by Mr Koon Yew Yin.

The conquest of happiness

The Perak Academy invited me to give a talk recently on Feb 26. After my speech, many listeners wanted a copy of the text. Hence, my sharing an edited version here.

A few years ago, I wrote ‘A philosophy of happiness’ for a dying friend but the Academy decided that this wasn’t quite suitable. Perhaps they thought that given the circumstances of that last occasion, it was too much of a risk to tempt fate. Generally Malaysians do not like to take risks.

Instead of my original suggested topic, the Academy decided on a slight variation: ‘The conquest of happiness”.

How does one conquer happiness? This question derives comes from the eponymous book by Bertrand Russell – a 1930 classic. But why should anyone want to ‘conquer’ happiness? What does conquering happiness involve?

The author, a Nobel laureate, is considered one of the greatest (if not the greatest) philosopher in modern history. Many consider Russell’s book as a present day substitute for the Bible. It is a roadmap to help you achieve your ultimate aim in life.

The causes of unhappiness and happiness lie partly in the social system, partly in one’s individual psychology and partly in human nature.

Social systems – war, bad political leaders, cruelty and economic exploitation – create a lot of unhappiness.

Individual psychology depends on how you are taught when young, how you react/respond to certain ideas and your own experiences in life.

Human nature is the inbuilt system, for example, the traits of envy and jealousy which are inbuilt defects. A baby is not taught to be envious yet it would scream if its mother so much as carries another child. The baby’s inherent possessiveness is actually something natural.

What is envy?

Bertrand Russell said envy is one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. It is a universal and most unfortunate aspect of human nature because not only is the envious person rendered unhappy, he also wishes to inflict misfortune on others.

Although envy is generally seen as something negative, it can nonetheless be a driving force for man to perform better or improve himself.

Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder are often envious of others or they believe others are envious of him or her. Aristotle defined ‘envy’ as pain caused by the good fortune of others.

‘Envy’ and ‘jealousy’ are often used interchangeably, but in their correct usage, the words stand for two different and distinct emotions. Jealousy is the fear of losing a loved one to a rival, while envy is the frustration caused by another person having something that one does not have.

Envy typically involves two persons, and jealousy involves three. “Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s wife, slaves or donkey” is the seventh Commandment delivered by Moses. In Islam, envy (hassad in Arabic) can destroy one’s good deeds and therefore, one must be content with what God has given by saying Maashallah (God has willed it).

According to the Buddha, “Mind is the forerunner of states of existence. Mind is chief, and (those states) are caused by the mind. If one speaks and acts with a pure mind, surely happiness will follow like one’s own shadow!”

In Buddhism, the third of the Four Noble Truths states “to eliminate suffering, eliminate craving.” Thus, its teachings establish happiness as beyond material and emotional possession, and attainable only through an attentive practice by which craving and aversion are extinguished.

I know all of you have achieved some degree of success in life, but you just cannot waltz through life and expect to be happy. First you need to know the principles that make people happy. Then let your conscious beliefs be so vivid and emphatic that they make an impression upon yourself until you finally attain the third stage – the transformation of your life into a life of happiness.

For example, in doing charity; all members of service clubs know that their mission is to do charity but many of them have not got it into their system and practice. I speak from personal experience as various service clubs could not accept my challenge that I would donate an equal amount to the sums they raise, on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

If you can follow these three steps for each of the following 14 characteristics [below] described in Russell's framework, you will be giving yourself the best chance of achieving not just happiness but also freedom from the ‘human bondage’.

You will no longer feel so coerced by the dictates of society and the demands of your parents, but rather be a more self-determining human being. You will be happy and free.

Bertrand Russell’s 14 steps

First you must know how to conquer unhappiness.

1. Don’t be taken in by melancholy

Melancholy is only a passing mood; don’t mistake it for wisdom. Prolonged sadness can lead to mental depression, a sickness associated with suicidal tendency. You must believe that you can change your mood simply by doing something different – play a game or talk to a good friend for diversion.

2. Don't get caught in the competitive treadmill

Life is always a struggle. You compete in school, in university and at work … always wanting to do better and making more money. You really do not need so much to be happy. You must know when to stop chasing material possessions and learn to be contented. You cannot be happy if you are still greedy for more and more.

Feeling happy is the only true success. Don’t work so hard until you forget how to be happy.

3. Develop the right attitude to boredom and excitement

Everyone has a natural fear of boredom. That is why one always has the urge to find things to do. Very few people can just sit down, do nothing and simply enjoy peace and tranquility (but give it a try!). Do not fear a little boredom for a certain amount of boredom in life is to be expected.

The opposite of boredom is excitement but be careful in seeking it. Incidentally, there is a recent news report from Australia that the easy availability of Viagra and other stimulants has raised the level of sexual activity amongst senior citizens (that is, those over 75) to exceptional levels of excitement. Just imagine that. Excitement is best sought in small doses and in the right places.

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

Get a sense of perspective. Ask yourself “what is the worst thing that can possibly happen?” For example if your doctor tells you that your disease is incurable, you must realise that worry will not make you better. The best you can do is to find enjoyment every day for whatever life you have left.

On the other hand though, when you have a difficult problem, do not suppress it because it will not go away by itself. Face it, grapple with it and try to find a way to resolve it. Do what you can and believe that it will be alright when the time comes. Remember! Prolonged worrying can cause mental depression.

5. Don’t envy, admire!

Since I have already touched on envy and jealousy at the start of my talk, I only wish to add this: Enjoy what you have for its own sake. Don’t compare yourself with others who are more successful than you.

When you are sad, compare yourself with people who are in a worse situation.

6. Fight back against guilt and shame

When you are young, you are easily influenced by your religious teachers and your parents. As a result, your conscience is formed. Many things you like to do but are considered sinful will make you unhappy as your conscience pricks you. Unless you are able to change your mindset, you will be unhappy.

According to Bertrand Russell, consensual sex between two adults can be very thrilling and the partners should not be made to feel ashamed or guilty. Russell expounded this concept almost a century ago. Today a majority of the people – at least in this auditorium – are prepared to accept the idea. A minority though would think that Russell was encouraging divorce as he was an atheist.

Statistics show that more than 50% of people in Europe and the US are divorced. Frequently many marriages that are unhappy do not end in divorce only because of the constraining factors of religion, children, guilt and shame. So to be happy, you need to understand and appreciate Russell’s philosophy on this issue.

7. Don’t suffer from an exaggerated sense of injustice

We must be concerned about politics because it affects all of us in so many ways and impacts on the future of our children. But you must bear in mind that you alone cannot change the situation or the flow of current affairs. After you have done what you can, leave it to fate and don’t be unhappy.

8. Don’t care too much what others think

"Respect public opinion only to avoid starvation and jail."

Normally you will not feel happy to do something without your spouse’s approval, or that of friends and family. But you must not be afraid to exercise your own judgment in certain important matters, e.g. when to buy and when to sell shares. Your wife may not be giving the best advice on these matters.

Everyone has his own opinion but who is right and who is wrong is a constant puzzle. For example, the Catholics forbid divorce but it is allowed by the Muslim and the civil courts.

The secrets of happiness

Now you must know how to conquer happiness. The next six measures make up Steps 9 to 14 of the Bertrand Russell philosophy to happiness.

1. Cultivate zest

Get into the habit of taking a lively and friendly interest in everything. The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities he has to make himself happy. An introvert cannot be happy. Outside working hours, you must have a lot of free time to make yourself happy. Make new friends, have more hobbies, play games, surf the Internet, watch football and movies, etc.

2. Be affectionate

Do not be afraid to show kindness and affection to people e.g. tipping waiters and the jaga kereta. You cannot be happy if you do not have the feeling that you are doing something good and people love you. You will feel happy if you can make someone happy.

You can create happiness by offering scholarships to help needy students without expecting anything in return. I have done so and found happiness in this. All the recipients have to promise me is that when they are financially solvent they will help other needy students. In this way, they will continue to do charity and create happiness after I die.

Avoid an argument because no one wins in any argument. Remember how you felt the last time you had an argument with someone. When you receive affection or admiration, you would feel secure and this enables you to perform better. By the same token, you should do the same unto others.

Here I would like to quote from Russell’s book again. “The best type of affection is reciprocally life-giving: each receives affection with joy and gives it without effort, and each finds the whole world more interesting in consequence of the existence of this reciprocal happiness. There is, however, another kind, by no means uncommon, in which one person sucks the vitality of the other, one receives what the other gives, but gives almost nothing in return. Some very vital people belong to this bloodsucking type. They extract the vitality from one victim after another, but while they prosper and grow interesting, those upon whom they live grow pale and dim and dull.”

3. Be a good parent

Give your child time and not too much money.

The bond between parents and children is often one of the greatest source of happiness. But in many cases, it is also a source of unhappiness to both parties. In fact, studies show that in most cases, at least one of both parties is unhappy in the relationship. The reasons for this phenomenon are too many and varied and would be outside the scope of this talk.

4. Do interesting, varied and constructive work

Living in a competitive world, one is born to do work. Everyone needs to work. Work prevents boredom. Even uninteresting work will make holidays more enjoyable. Work offers the opportunity for you to achieve your ambition. Try to find interesting work so that you can enjoy doing it.

5. Cultivate plenty of relaxing minor interests

Enjoy as many hobbies and pursuits as you can; make sure these provide a difference from your day job. For example: Keep a dog, read, surf the Net, play games, watch TV or contact your friends more frequently. You must realise most of your enjoyment is generated from the people closest to you – your friends, children and your spouse.

6. Find the right balance between effort and resignation

A man occupies almost all his time in worrying about his wife, children, his work and his financial position. All these burdens are bound to depress and tire him.

Very few people, except singles, have never quarreled with their spouses. Very few parents have not endured grave anxiety when their children are ill. Very few businessmen have never met financial difficulties and few professional men have not faced periods of failure. It is at such times that the wide variety of cultivated interests provides an outlet for amusement and happiness.

Joy in sharing

Let me end by emphasizing again that happiness is a state of mind.

Research has identified a number of attributes that correlate with happiness: Relationships and social interaction, marital status, employment, health, democratic freedom, optimism, religious involvement, income and proximity to other happy people.

Philosophers and religious thinkers often define happiness in terms of living or leading a good life rather than simply as an emotion. I recommend this traditional definition of happiness to all of you.

In my talk tonight, I have attempted to go beyond the conquest of happiness as it has been analysed by Bertrand Russell. This I have done by introducing an additional important element and that is the joy and contentment that comes with giving and sharing.

Finally, if even one of you here tonight goes home stimulated by this talk and feels inspired to share your talent and material wealth with others, then I will feel that it has been a successful outcome.

Thank you.



zamre said…
good article.. good post..
Zamre Bin Ab. Wahab
walla said…
clk said…
The classic essay by the same philosopher, B Russell, "In Praise of Idleness" is the other good read.
walla said…
Kingsmen said…
consider this....psalm 1 ...Most Blessed is the man that walked not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers BUT his delight is in the law of God and on HIS law does he meditate day and night. Then he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, wholse leaf does not wither during winter and whatsoever he does shall PROSPER...

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