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How to Be Happy, According to Bertrand Russell


In a 1924 conference, Bertrand Russell reminded us what our freedom depends upon.

It’s possible that, deep down, we know the real qualities of happiness. Many people, for centuries, have warned us of the possible diversions from the path. Despite that, the world appears more and more distanced from the essential values in which happiness lies. Remembering those values and focusing on the vital circumstances that facilitate a free and happy life is a task, more than ever, to be entrusted to a philosopher or social thinker.

British writer, philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell expressed sufficient lucidity to combine the most abstruse studies of logic with fundamental questions such as this one. In 1924, Russell gave a speech at the Rand School of Social Science in New York, the title of which surprised for its apparent innocence: How to be Free and Happy.

The search for philosophical clarity drove Bertrand Russell to adopt the so-called Occam’s razor principle in which, of two solutions, the simplest has more probability of being the correct one. In the speech, Russell’s crystal clear explanation about the conditions for human freedom and happiness caused the same impression as a sudden recollection of a forgotten truth. Due to its simplicity, the speech was extraordinarily deep for the audience.

The starting point from which the Nobel prizewinner chose to approach the problem of happiness and its inseparable quality, freedom, was puritanism. The puritan inheritance, derived from the religious dogma, which in its day granted humankind noble spiritual objectives in lieu of material enrichment, ended up conditioning our happiness by considering all pleasure to be deplorable. So-called base pleasures, which were criticized as a way of life, were compared with other, more elevated pleasures that were necessary for a full life, such as art. But that moral stance born from resentment and envy ended up, according to Russell, poisoning all of those vital instincts of expansion and creativity without which no real happiness is possible.

Rather than the puritan moral, which recommends sacrifice to work as a way of earning entry into the heaven known as material enrichment, Russell recommends leisure. The life of leisure, according to the British philosopher, is nothing more than the possibility of developing the internal, creative and expansive impulses without being conditioned by an external authority.

Russell identifies two types of emotions: expansive and restrictive. The former, based on kindness and the creative spirit, are those that will have the capacity to create a moral order capable of leading humankind to freedom, while the latter, among which are jealousy and envy, are the cause of a morality that is based on the desire to inflict pain on others. The moralist finds in the suffering of others a compensation for the tension of repressing their natural emotions. Russell defined it as unconscious envy.

The religion, mainly founded on fear, was the cause of that moral that is contrary to life, and making life, which must be expansive, restrictive and, as a result, making humans unhappy and lacking freedom.

Overcoming fear is, according to Russell, the secret to real happiness. Humans who live expansively, freeing up their creative impulses of generosity and affection, are free of all cruelty and allow others to enjoy the same autonomy. All artificial morals mean an increase in cruelty.

Russell’s philosophy is a song to the individual, comparable to what, in poetry, Walt Whitman gave us. Lost among the masses, humankind cannot find happiness, because without being an individual we will never find the way to realize our expansive potential. We are not what we do for a living but rather possess intrinsic qualities that must be developed to achieve a life full of meaning. And those qualities will only be developed if the essential fear in our hearts, fed by puritanism bred from religion, is overcome and we become truly generous, free of prejudices and bearers of illuminated and vital love.

Like Whitman in Leaves of Grass, singing with every step of our journey our love for the world and for humankind.


Image by Amber / Creative Commons

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