A famous philosopher noticed that the wealthy people around him were sad. The reason why might surprise you.
What do philosophers know about being happy?
You’d think we’d have that one sorted by now. We’ve thrown enough brain power at it over the centuries. But where has it gotten us?
Why are so many of us (and so many philosophers in particular!) still so miserable?
Is it really that hard?
I think the challenge is because we are biologically designed to seek pleasure, not happiness. We like to think we’re motivated by happiness, and maybe we are when we stop and think about it, but day-to-day, moment-to-moment, we are motivated by pleasure.
Trouble is, ‘pleasure’ is a goal post that is always shifting. Eating something tasty is pleasurable, until you’ve had too much and it stops being pleasurable. You want to go for a nice walk and move your legs, and that feels nice, but then after a while, you feel tired and you want to sit down.
‘Pleasure’ is a carrot, dangling just in front of our noses, driving us forward.
And the pursuit of pleasure is a world apart from the pursuit of happiness.
I like what the English philosopher Bertrand Russell says about happiness.
For a long while there, Russell was the most famous philosopher on the planet. During the conflicts of the 20th Century, Russell was one of the most strident and passionate voices for peace.
“War does not determine who is right. Only who is left.”
He grew up in a very wealthy household, and his grandfather had been the Prime Minister of Britain. But both of his parents had died when he was a child, and he was raised by his grandmother, who was strict and religiously conservative, but politically progressive and principled.
His older brother Frank became rebellious, but Russell threw himself into study, mostly as a means to escape his depression, which took him to the brink of suicide a number of times.
Watching his own experiences, and the world around him, Russell noticed something odd. Even though he moved in some of the wealthiest circles in English society, he was struck that wealth and unhappiness seemed to be correlated. The wealthiest people he knew were also the unhappiest.
Why was that? If wealth didn’t make you happy, what did?
Russell set out to find an answer, and in 1930 published his classic book, The Conquest of Happiness.
Now obviously I’m condensing a master-piece by one of the most important philosophers in history down into a simple take-home message, so you know, keep that in mind. But Russell reckons there’s one thing you need to be happy.
He defined zest as “enthusiasm, eagerness, energy and interest.” For Russell, having zest for life meant living with vigour, taking interest in the world around you, seeking out adventure, and living with a sense of enthusiasm.
According to Russell, “What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life.”
But this becomes a deeply personal question. Just as people have different tastes in food, so do people get fascinated and drawn to different endeavours in life.
Our quest is to find what turns us on, and give ourselves to it, 110%. And if your life allows you to give space to that quest, and you make it a personal mission, then you will find joy and meaning.
This is Russell’s key to happiness. Zest, a hunger for life.
So, Bon Appetite.