Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bertrand Russell on flow, selfishness, and death

This will conclude my blogging of Bertrand Russell's 1930 book The Conquest of Happiness (you can see all the posts at this link):

11. "A great deal of work gives the same pleasure that is to be derived from games of skill. . . . All skilled work can be pleasurable, provided the skill required is either variable or capable of indefinite improvement. If these conditions are absent, it will cease to be interesting when a man has acquired his maximum skill. A man who runs three-mile races will cease to find pleasure in this occupation when he passes the age at which he can beat his own previous record. Fortunately there is a very considerable amount of work in which new circumstances call for new skill and a man can go on improving." (165)

Those observations are uncannily reminiscent of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow. Csikszentmihalyi supported his theory with psychological experiments, conceived at the University of Chicago and conducted around the world over 20 years. Russell understood it instinctively before anyone went to that trouble.

12. "The traditional moralist . . . will say that love should be unselfish. In a certain sense he is right, that is to say, it should not be selfish beyond a point, but it should undoubtedly be of such a nature that one's happiness is bound up in its success. If a man were to invite a lady to marry him on the ground that he ardently desired her happiness and at the same time considered that she would afford him ideal opportunities of self-abnegation, I think it may be doubted whether she would be altogether pleased. Undoubtedly we should desire the happiness of those whom we love, but not as an alternative to our own. In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world . . . disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves." (190-91)

It's all too easy to criticize someone's life decisions as "selfish." You have to have children -- it's selfish otherwise. Someone who doesn't want children can just as easily maintain that having children is what's selfish. Russell's paragraph is a good reminder that this word shouldn't have too much power. Everyone is selfish, and we need to live with this fact.

13. The book's final thought: "The happy man . . . feels himself a citizen of the universe, . . . untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him." (191)

6 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

"If a man were to invite a lady to marry him on the ground that he ardently desired her happiness and at the same time considered that she would afford him ideal opportunities of self-abnegation, I think it may be doubted whether she would be altogether pleased."

Kind of a paradox, isn't it? Since she wouldn't be pleased, it wouldn't be the way to make her happy. His unselfish desire at step 1 would take him to step 2 in which he would have to have selfish needs so he could make her happy. And also, how could he have an ardent desire in the first place if he weren't into his own needs?

But there is a way around all that. Let's say a coolly moral man decides to be purely idealistic and identifies a deserving woman. Then he models himself on her needs, including her need for a strong, good man. He doesn't act like a subordinate dweeb, because she wouldn't love that. He makes himself what she can love and gives all.

Ironically, I think that man could be fabulously happy proceeding that way.

John Althouse Cohen said...

This can quickly devolve into semantics: what counts as "selfish"? or "subordinate"? etc. We shouldn't let our lives be run by -- subordinate to -- adjectives.

Matthias said...

This reminds me of the Gilbert & Sullivan play "Patience" in which the title character decides she cannot be with the man she loves because love is selfless and being with the man she loves would be selfish so it would not be real love.

"True Love must single-hearted be"

halojones-fan said...

#12 sounds very Objectivist--i.e. "selfishness is not immoral".

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