Chapter 11: Zest

One of the most recognizable outward signs of happy men is zest - the enthusiasm they have for being engaged in an activity that causes them to be happy. We do so even to the point that we find it difficult to conceive that a person who does not "look" happy is not genuinely happy, which is a misconception - but for now, we will consider the manner of those whose happiness is externally evident.

Perhaps it's easiest to explain by considering the different ways in which men behave when they gather for a meal.

The man who is happy at a meal is one who takes pleasure from the meal, whether in the sensuousness of the meal or in its ability to satisfy a healthy degree of appetite. Such a man may share certain characteristics of some of the "types" described above, but in moderation.

The topic of food brings Bertrand to consider contempt: the belief that others are inferior or superior as a matter of their tastes, which merely diminishes or dispels happiness. It does not make a person better to prefer wine to beer, though many would suggest so. The wine-drinker has no need to be smug nor the beer-drinker to be ashamed but each may take their own pleasure and be indifferent to the choices of others.

If there is any superiority in the matter of taste, that distinction should be granted to those who are able to appreciate a broad range of things, for his is the greatest happiness in all situations. The more things a man is interested in, the more opportunities for happiness he has, and the greater his ability to find pleasure with whatever is available to him at the time. "Life is too short to be interested in everything, but it is good to be interested in as many things as are necessary to fill our days."

There is a bit of an extended narrative that follows, culminating in a fairly simple maxim: that an introspective person knows what pleases himself and is often disappointed to note its absence, whereas a person who is observant of the world can find something that causes him pleasure in any environment. It is curiosity about the world, rather than about oneself, that leads to happiness.

There's another lengthy passage about intellectual curiosity - the person who comes across a hat that someone has lost and speculates about its former owner and how he came to loose it, or the traveller who converses with his fellows rather than remaining aloof. Even unpleasant experiences "have their uses" and those who suffer hardship well recount the details of the event with some air of fascination.

People can take a special interest in very peculiar things - and this is the pleasure derived from certain hobbies. He speaks of a man who took an interest in the Chinese inscriptions on teapots and made great effort to learn the language, though he hadn't any other use for it. However, very specialized interest are a less productive source of happiness than a general interest because there are fewer instances in which they stir curiosity and the action that results.

The notion of the Renaissance man, who takes an amateur interest in a great many things and develops a myriad of small talents, were onto something. In a "good life" there must be balance and variety, and attending overmuch about one thing draws the interest from others as it becomes an obsession or a mania.

Dipsomaniacs and nymphomaniacs are obvious examples of the way in which overindulgence in something that can be a great source of pleasure becomes unhealthy. There are likely some passions that can be indulged to any extent without directly causing harm, though neglect of other concerns can result: health, income, and basic social duties must be attended.

The same rationale should be applied to the activity of a career - as success seldom requires complete devotion to the neglect of other things, and even when such devotion is required to achieve a certain level of results it is hardly worth the investment. The soldier who sacrifices his life and leaves his widow destitute or the scientist whose breakthrough discovery has cost the neglect of his children are exalted by society, but the public acclaim are hardly worth the sacrifice. A man who abandons his family to become a monk and devote his entire life to religious studies was once greatly admired, though in the present age it's considered self-indulgent if he makes no provision for those he has left behind to pursue his own interests.

In general, the man who sacrifices much to indulge a single desire or interest is likely suffering from some deep-seated psychological problem. To throw oneself totally into one's work, however seemingly important, is often a means of escape, and such a man is essentially no different than the drunkard or drug addict.

There is some consternation for the society of Russell's time in that it is contrary to happiness. The educational system has become quite mercenary and no longer teaches a man a broad array of interests but leads him to specialize in one thing to the neglect of all others. Religion has for ages taught men to ignore and avoid those things that give them pleasure, even where it is not forbidden by any scripture. It is argued that taming the passions is essential to the way of life in a civilized society - but it is questionable as to whether it is strictly necessary, and even more questionable if such a way of life is worth having.

There is the belief that in the modern world everything must be regulated and precise, and the actions of many individuals must be regimental and disciplined for a train to depart on time. But there is seldom any credible reason that the train cannot leave a minute later than was predicted, and there is much radium and anxiety over activities that are done simply because it is assumed that they must be done. This unnecessary punctiliousness achieves precision at the expense of much weariness and misery.

He does not doubt that, to some degree, that coordination and precision are necessary, as a too-lackadaisical approach cannot be taken if anything is to be done at all, or to be done well and in a reasonable amount of time. But it is apparent that rigor even at a healthy activity can be taken to extremes - and the widespread unhappiness in civilized countries suggests it may have passed the limits of its usefulness.

In closing the chapter, Russell examines the particular problem of the role that is defined for women in the society of his time: to be aloof, unemotional, subservient, in order to be perceived as "respectable." And as a result, they not only become unfeminine but inhuman and thoroughly unpleasant. "I recommend anyone who doubts this statement to go the round of a number of lodging-houses seeking a lodging, and to take note of the landladies that he will meet ... He will find that they are living by a conception of female excellence which involves as an essential part the destruction of all zest for life."