The Happy Man by Bertrand Russell: A Critical Analysis

Anannya Uberoi
4 min readSep 10, 2017
Credits: Pinterest

First published in 1930, “The Happy Man” is an excerpt from “The Conquest of Happiness”, a self-help text, whereby the author, Bertrand Russell calls the interests of his readers towards the abstract notion of happiness, expatiating on the ideas linked with how a man could truly be happy. Although the essay makes a good read all in all, there are certain points worth considering in the process of the evaluation of its utility and practicality to a layman.

Russell begins with a simple observation that happiness is partly dependent upon external circumstances and partly upon oneself, and centralizes his concerns to the latter. His inclusion of the statement that unhappy people who cannot overcome their unhappiness through internal psychological procedures may need the services of a psychiatrist, may invite a sense of ridicule to modern audiences, but if the readers consider the time frame of the essay and the disposition of the author, it becomes evident that Russell indeed, is being thorough and candid in his exploration of the subject.

He counts food, shelter, love, successful work and respect in society as some of the indispensable factors to happiness, and the deficiency of any of these the primary cause of unhappiness. However, he does not clearly define the last two, which may hold different values and meanings to different people. Russell focuses on the need for fractioning one’s interests into a wide array of disciplines and activities in order to stay involved with the world and remain happy within. Through strong writing, Russell evinces his stance against self-centered passions such as fear, envy, sense of sin, self-pity and self-admiration, which bind one to the self and engender unhappy attitudes. It is worth noting that in addition to enumerating these notions, he also provides means of getting over them in the form of simple techniques and illustrations, like the one about Boy Scouts, which helps readers relate to his observations.

Russell very wisely devotes an entire paragraph towards clarifying the difference between conscious self-denial, as preached by moralists, and refraining from self-centered behavior. The difference lies in the vivid self-awareness of the fact that one is consciously not pursuing something which lends a sense of pride in one’s sacrifice. Also, the doctrine of unselfish love propagated by moralists is rightfully wrong in his eyes, since the happiness of others should not be substituted with the happiness of self. However, it seems that he is somewhat imposing his sense of judgement upon the people.

Talking about the literary aspects, I would like to include two attributes- the structure of writing, and the language, in this critical analysis.

The essay is exceedingly concise and does not stray from the central motive of defining the “Happy Man”. It is commendable how Russell has incorporated such advanced ideologies and arguments in such seemingly short a text, and also succeeded in getting his point across without any ambiguities and dualities of meaning. The sub-topics are arranged in an intriguing manner, and the writing comes to close with a conclusive summary. However, I would not hesitate to add that it is complex for amateur readers as it requires thorough reading to avoid misconceptions. This is certainly not for leisurely reading or reading for the sole purpose of entertainment. It may appear verbose or unappealing to some, particularly the young readers; which suggests that it is indeed an audience-specific work.

Russell claims:

“The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him.”

Russell uses the magnificence of this idea to his advantage by strongly appealing to pathos. He uses this effect to leverage focus away from the fact that this idea wouldn’t be regarded logically sound by his audience.

Russell’s resourceful use of language is heavily adorned with ample adjectives, a vivid vocabulary and good word selection.

In another paragraph, Russell states:

“Fear is the principal reason why men are so unwilling to admit facts and so anxious to wrap themselves round in a warm garment of myth. But the thorns tear the warm garment and the cold blasts penetrate through the rents, and the man who has become accustomed to its warmth suffers far more form these blasts than a man who has hardened himself to them from the first.”

He wisely uses metaphors to accentuate his expressions in the context of fear and breaking free. Occasional heavily ornamented lines tend to keep the readers hooked onto the vague, highly intellectual idea.

Concluding my overall assessment of the work, though “The Happy Man” fails to cover a large variety of audience, with the repeated usage of the words ‘man’ and ‘him’ shows a slight bent towards masculinity and limits his audience and the relation they feel with the text, it overall makes a decent read to explore the causes of unhappiness and the personal choices, compromises and sacrifices that lead to the final, affirmative conclusion that man can indeed fight the present circumstances and achieve happiness inside.