Blizzards and Boredom and Bertrand Russell.

What better way to spend a snowy midwest winter evening than curled up with a cup of hot cocoa and Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness.   It was written in 1930, but it’s still very much appropriate and inspiring.   It was recommended to me from a dear friend about, oh, a year ago.  I found it at my local Borders and I’m finally getting round to reading it.  His name has been cropping up a lot lately, causing me to finally investigate his philosophy further.

I’m on chapter Four: Boredom and Excitement.  I’ve been feeling a bit of angst because the year is nearly up, the girls have been in school for 4 months and I still haven’t decided if I am going back to school or work, finish the two novels I’ve started, or start doing work again on two of my blogs.  I’ve been feeling a little bored, restless and directionless.

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

Girls nowadays earn their own living, very largely because this enables them to seek excitement in the evening and to escape ‘the happy family time’ that their grandmothers had to endure. Everybody who can lives in a town; in America, those who cannot, have a car, or at the least a motor-bicycle, to take them to the movies. And of course they have the radio in their houses. Young men and young women meet each other with much less difficulty than was formerly the case and every housemaid expects at least once a week as much excitement as would have lasted a Jane Austen heroine throughout a whole novel.

Nor have the lives of great men been exciting except at a few great moments. Socrates could enjoy a banquet now and again, and must have derived considerable satisfaction from his conversations while the hemlock was taking effect, but most of his life he lived quietly with Xanthippe, taking a constitutional in the afternoon, and perhaps meeting a few friends by the way. Kant is said never to have been more than ten miles from Konigsberg in all his life. Darwin, after going round the world, spent the whole of the rest of his life in his own house. Marx, after stirring up a few revolutions, decided to spend the remainder of his days in the British Museum. Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting to the outward eye.

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. It makes life hot and dusty and thirsty, like a pilgrimage in the desert. Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind. A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.

I wonder what good old Bertie would say (if he were still alive) about the internet and instant access to all kinds of diversions.

It’s quite an interesting and extremely relevant book. I’ve been learning to deal with boredom…especially since I had quite an interesting life before I quit my job at the genetics lab.  Still…after 6.5 years of being a stay at home mother, I’m not quite capable of enduring fruitful monotony.   I go a little bonkers from time to time, and go a LOT bonkers, usually about mid-winter.  But I have plenty of reading material, and a few friends with whom I see or converse with on a regular basis while the husband and the girls are away at work and school.

I’m pretty careful with the girls, and strive to not fill their lives every moment of the day with adult-directed activities.   They have one extra-curricular activity (4-H club that meets once a month) and they have tv/video/computer -free time during their days.  My oldest daughter taught herself cursive in her free time last year so she had a jump start on it for third grade, and just this weekend, checked a book out on how to make pop-up cards and made a great one in for her grandmother for Christmas.

I don’t know how much success they’ll have in dealing with boredom, seeing as how they really have less opportunities to be bored than I did as a child.   I didn’t have the internet, but I did have access to the Encyclopedia Britannica.  I spent time catching lizards in our backyard, not extra points on the video games.   If my mother was around, she ignored my sisters and I completely, unless we were fighting.  I do have to admit I wasn’t so good about it before, but I’m getting better at giving them the space to create their own fun.

I do know that I want to ensure that my daughters aren’t simply chasing after the happiness in life through typical channels of achievement, status and money.   I’d rather they be capable of deriving satisfaction from the boring parts of life as well as the exciting ones.

Come to think of it…that’s what I want for me too.

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6 Responses to Blizzards and Boredom and Bertrand Russell.

  1. Papa T says:


  2. Rick says:

    >Young men and young women meet each other with much less difficulty than was formerly the case and every housemaid expects at least once a week as much excitement as would have lasted a Jane Austen heroine throughout a whole novel.

    HAHAHA! Bitter ol’ man Russell, yelling at the kids on his lawn. 🙂

    I like his stuff, though he went the atheist route, solidly, and I rebounded from that. It’s funny how every generation has some great writer lamenting how much weaker we are today than in the glorious (tougher, better) past. Even Homer said that of the current batch of Greek heroes, who were nothing compared to the guys 300 years prior.

    It. Never. Ends. 🙂

  3. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Hey, now, I have NEVER gotten the impression good old Bertie was bitter and I never gave much thought to his religious background (for me, it’s irrelevant – I take my solace where I can get it). I have heard his The Conquest of Happiness being highly recommended reading in quite a few places lately.

    But let’s get to his views on religion –

    “When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.”

    I think it’s not a matter that he rejects God for the sake of rejecting God, but because it limits what we are capable of. He neither believes in acting selfishly or bitterly about the future. He seems very humanistic and very hopeful.

    And…to add to his hopeful, non-embittered state, here’s another statement he’d made, at the end of his life:

    “At the age of 84, Russell added a five-paragraph prologue to a new publication of his autobiography, giving a summary of the work and his life, titled WHAT I HAVE LIVED FOR.

    Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

    I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.

    With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

    Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

    This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

    So, in essence, love taught him how to see a vision of ‘heaven’ the saints and poets talk about. If he was a die-hard Atheist, I wonder if he really would have used that statement. Maybe he was getting soft in his old age. I don’t know.

    Bertrand Russell’s the Conquest of Happiness was a reflection of the changes that was taking place and are still taking place today, where the focus is on money and material acquisition and the conditioning of our selves to be over-indulgent with the entertainment. He was addressing predominantly on the disconnection of people because of modern advances that makes us greedy, lazy and seek out entertainment instead of continuing to use our faculties for connecting with what’s important. This particular chapter was on the growing ennui that a ‘civilized’ culture faces. When you don’t have to fight to survive, you spend inordinate amounts of time creating entertainment – sometimes this is exactly by making a mess of one’s life.

    You’ve said it yourself, my friend, that there are times when you throw a wrench in your life when things are going too good. You wondered if it was because you were bored. I had to agree with you. Too much comfort is bad for people – as much as too much stress is bad for people. It leads ennui and anxiety. We have an addictive culture because we have too easy access to things and too much comfort – tv, junk food, internet, sex, drugs, shopping, alcohol. We become afraid of being with ourselves, let alone with each other.

    Given the fact that I don’t work, I have difficulty making deep connections with others because people live so shallowly (over here anyway), and religious people keep abusing me in my real life, I’d rather find a philosophy that I can understand and relate to.

    It doesn’t bother me that he was an Atheist. So was Nietzsche. And so was Irvin Yalom. Both of whom has relieved me of a considerable amount of existential depression. I don’t think about what comes later. I act in accordance with this is the life I have to live, and I am making the best of it for myself as well as those around me while I have blood in my veins.

    I’m not an Atheist and I don’t necessarily believe in an anthropomorphic God that everybody else does. At best, I’m pantheistic whereby God and Nature are interchangeable.

    • Rick says:

      As for throwing wrenches… yep, it’s fun to build something beautiful. It’s also fun to break it.

      Maybe that’s God’s perspective, too.

      And I don’t mean to exaggerate. I don’t really care whether someone is atheist or not. However, I think it’s an important part of Russell’s personality. I’ve read much of his stuff, and there is a strong cord of religion-bashing in it. Mostly, I think he was anti-phony.

  4. Mary says:

    Hi Casey,

    I just stumbled upon your website while trying to find some concrete advice for my daughter’s teacher (3rd grade). Despite meetings and letters every year concerning the importance of understanding the basics of Selective Mutism, they have really avoided it. Her current teacher is open to learning and I wanted to give her “suggestions for teachers regarding Selective Mutism” but the link is broken. Could you please email me the info. I would GREATLY appreciate it!

    Thank you Casey,


  5. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Mary –

    I will send it off right now. Thanks for inquiring.


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