After getting books on Christmas plus some post-Christmas shopping, I should probably do another update to my reading list I started a few months ago. But first, something from one of the new books got my attention.
The book is The Conquest of Happiness by the great philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the passage jumped out at me because it elaborated on something I'd jotted down in a Moleskine notebook a little while ago.
So, here's my Moleskine entry, dated 10/30/08:
As I've observed myself and other young people trying to find their direction in life, one of the themes I've abstracted from people's individual situations is: there's a spectrum of work that expresses your own individuality vs. work that contributes to society. Some people have asked me why I went into law instead of a creative field -- "that seems to be what you're passionate about." Well, when you're an artist, you're struggling to have your voice stand out amid millions of other voices on the market. When you do a more society-oriented job, your voice still matters, but it's not the focus or the goal. The goal that's driving you is achieving the best results for the outside world. Adding your own personal touch is a detail at most. Also, there isn't an ongoing struggle to break through; once you're doing the job, what you're doing automatically matters.Now here's Bertrand Russell,* published in 1930:
Pleasures of achievement demand difficulties such that beforehand success seems doubtful although in the end it is usually achieved. This is perhaps the chief reason why a modest estimate of one's own powers is a source of happiness. The man who underestimates himself is perpetually being surprised by success, whereas the man who overestimates himself is just as often surprised by failure. ...
Of the more highly educated sections of the community, the happiest in the present day are the men of science. Many of the most eminent of them are emotionally simple, and obtain from their work a satisfaction so profound that they can derive pleasure from eating, and even marrying. Artists and literary men consider it de rigueur to be unhappy in their marriages, but men of science quite frequently remain capable of old-fashioned domestic bliss.
The reason of this is that the higher parts of their intelligence are wholly absorbed by their work and are not allowed to intrude into regions where they have no functions to perform. In their work they are happy because in the modern world science is progressive and powerful, and because its importance is not doubted either by themselves or by laymen. They have therefore no necessity for complex emotions, since the simpler emotions meet with no obstacles. ...
[T]he man of science ... has an activity which utilizes his abilities to the full, and he achieves results which appear important not only to himself but to the general public, even when it cannot in the smallest degree understand them. In this he is more fortunate than the artist. When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. Consequently Einstein is honored while the best painters are (or at least were) left to starve in garrets, and Einstein is happy while the painters are unhappy.
Very few men can be genuinely happy in a life involving continual self-assertion against the skepticism of the mass of mankind, unless they can shut themselves up in a coterie and forget the cold outer world.
The man of science has no need of a coterie, since he is thought well of by everybody except his colleagues. The artist, on the contrary, is in the painful situation of having to choose between being despised and being despicable. If his powers are of the first order, he must incur one or the other of these misfortunes -- the former if he uses his powers, the latter if he does not. ...
[T]he most intelligent young people in Western countries tend to have that kind of unhappiness that comes of finding no adequate employment for their best talents. ... Cynicism such as one finds very frequently among the most highly educated young men and women ... results from the combination of comfort with powerlessness. Powerlessness makes people feel that nothing is worth doing, and comfort makes the painfulness of this feeling just endurable.
* This is from pp. 114-117 of the book. I've fiddled with the paragraph breaks for readability.