Chapter 1: What makes people unhappy?

Russell claims that "animals are happy so long as they have health and enough to eat" whereas human beings in the present world are unhappy in spite of a standard of living that is far better than ever in history.

The reader may well understand this - or if he be a happy person he should be able to recognize the widespread issue of unhappiness if he gives close attention to the moods of the people he encounters during the course of an ordinary day. "Unhappiness meets you everywhere."

Stand on any street in New York city and you will see few smiles, but sullenness in woe in abundance. Whether a work day or weekend, people are sullen, tired, angry, or anxious. Happiness is so unusual that any sign of exuberance or genuine enjoyment will draw attention and consternation, and even attract the attention of the police - as if there must be something wrong for someone to be so happy.

Even at festive events, people struggle to be happy - or more aptly to avoid showing signs of happiness "with the kind of grim resolve with which one determines not to make a fuss at the dentist." At such events, people get drunk quickly and pretend not to notice how much other people disgust them ... until they have drank a bit too much and begin to lament their own unworthiness.

The causes of unhappiness are found externally as well as internally - in the social system and in their individual psychology, which itself is largely a product of the social system. Warfare, poverty, slavery, death, pestilence, public disgrace, and the like are constant concerns that prevent us from being contented. But BR has written elsewhere about the miseries that society inflicts upon its citizens and resolves to avoid that topic in the present book, though such may be inevitable.

But even in times in which a man is not beset by such things - he has sufficient income to secure food and shelter, and is in reasonably good health, he still finds reason to be unhappy. Wealthy people are often miserable, and the poorest can at times seem quite contented in spite of their lot. Given that, the cause of happiness must be internal - in the way in which a person perceives their situation rather than the situation itself.

Russell speaks to his own experience: "I was not born happy" and recalls his surliness as a child, who saw the discontent of the world and perceived the life before him to be a long period of struggle and boredom. "In adolescence, I hated life." His religious upbringing also encouraged an attitude of constant misery, and led him to avoid pleasure and feel guilt when he happened to experience pleasure accidentally. But now in his older years he has come to enjoy life - he has discovered that many of the things he desired were not worth pursuing, and has achieved many of the things that are, and takes greater curiosity in the world, whatever state it is in.

He suggests that a great cause of unhappiness comes from being self-absorbed and ambitious - constantly obsessed with one's own deficiencies and covetous of things that have not yet been achieved or obtained.

He returns to religion - an institution that lures the unhappy with the promise of divine bliss, which immediately becomes the source of great unhappiness. The very concept of sin involves seeking out unhappiness, and presents the persona of a creator who insists we refrain from taking pleasure for the world he has created, to shun any source of pleasure as a matter of virtue, and to feel guilt and shame for any happiness we may ever have experienced. The very notion is plainly absurd.

He also considers the problem of ambition: an individual who admires the work of great artists and seeks to become an artist himself will most often find himself incapable of achieving their level of greatness, judge himself a constant failure, and be perpetually miserable and disappointed. This becomes vanity, which kills pleasure in any activity a man might undertake.

The narcissist loves himself overmuch and expects others to share his affection for himself. The megalomaniac wishes to be feared rather than loved by his fellow men. Neither of these types is particularly rational and, like the artist, is perpetually miserable for his failure to achieve his goals, though worse so because their achievement depends not on the individual's capabilities, but the inclinations of other men.

He pauses a bit longer on the megalomaniac, as they cause greater misery to others while the narcissist harms only himself. He observes it's often a matter of ego, and it's not uncommon for men such as Alexander or Napoleon to have been humiliated early in life and dedicated themselves to revenge. So many people who desire power, wealth, and fame are born powerless, poor, and anonymous and cannot accept their lot and find happiness in more productive pursuits.

A common factor in the myriad of psychological causes of unhappiness is that of an individual who, having been deprived of some normal satisfaction, has come to obsess on that particular satisfaction to the detriment of any other.

There is also, particularly in the present day, great incidence of depression: "A man may feel so completely thwarted that he seeks no form of satisfaction, but only distraction and oblivion." He may seek to overindulge himself in superficial ways, constantly seeking intoxication of some sort, or he may lose his love of life, even to the point of throwing away life itself for despair that he may never escape his unhappiness. But even that is to overindulge in self-puty and to become intoxicated on sorrow.

But these are marginal cases the author means to dismiss. Among the great majority, there are few that would deliberately choose unhappiness, and would seek any opportunity to be happy. "Whether I can help him to realize this wish, I do not know; but at any rate the attempt can do no harm. "