For greater well-being, subtract misery
If you’re an entrepreneur who would like to be happier in your work and life, chances are excellent your first impulse will be to add something. Maybe you could exercise or meditate more? Perhaps a new career direction would solve your woes? Indeed, those are often good happiness moves, but as Harvard happiness researcher Arthur Brooks recently pointed out in The Atlantic, they are only half the happiness equation.
Russell, who has been coming up strangely often in my reading lately, believed “unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world,” and broke these common misery-inducing mistakes into eight categories.
1. Fashionable pessimism
In plenty of circles these days, being grumpy and cynical is taken as a sign of depth and intelligence. This is not a new phenomenon, Brooks points out. Melancholy was all the rage in Victorian times, too. Choosing moodiness to look cool was dumb then, continued to be dumb in Russell’s time, when he mocked it mercilessly, and is dumb now.
2. Social comparison
Russell believed that “what most people fear is not falling into destitution but ‘that they will fail to outshine their neighbors,'” Brooks explains. Keeping up with the Jones is a never-ending game that can lead to lifelong discontent. And if you don’t believe the Nobel laureate, there’s modern science to prove it. The solution to social comparison, according to Russell, is to “focus on what you have and feel grateful.”
Closely linked to the above mistake, envy is the condition of feeling bad because someone else has more than you. Russell’s proposed this cure for envy: “Whoever wishes to increase human happiness must wish to increase admiration.” Rather than suffer because of other people’s excellence, celebrate and learn from it.
4. Evading boredom
“We are less bored than our ancestors were,” Russell wrote in 1930, “but we are more afraid of boredom.” Imagine what he would have made of the smartphone era! But the truth is, no gadget or streaming service can fully save you from boredom. They can, however, distract you from essential but uncomfortable reflection and creative growth. The solution is to fight to regain your capacity to just sit quietly and notice the world around you.
5. Coping with fear
Anxiety has only increased since Russell’s day, and it remains a thief of joy. “Russell believed that anxiety is rooted in fear of ‘some danger which we are unwilling to face,'” Brooks notes before highlighting modern science on the biological basis of anxiety disorders. But whatever the cause of your free-floating fear, not going to the effort of finding ways to tame it will make you miserable. Russell — and Tim Ferriss — suggests the best cure is forcing yourself to mentally face your fears until they lose some of their terror.
6. Senseless guilt
Should you feel guilty and make amends if you did something wrong and hurt someone? Of course, but Russell argued against a baseless sense of sin or feeling guilty just because you are doing well and others are doing less well.
7. Virtuous victimhood
Russell again feels ahead of his time with his warnings against playing the victim. “Russell was critical of what he called ‘persecution mania,’ in which one is ‘perpetually the victim of ingratitude, unkindness, and treachery.’ One version of this is what some researchers have called ‘virtuous victimhood,'” explains Brooks. Of course, sometimes people really are victims of injustice, but putting unending victimhood at the heart of your identity is a recipe for unhappiness.
8. Fear of public opinion
According to hospice nurses and others who work with the dying, among the most common deathbed regrets is living a life you thought others expected of you rather than one that was true to you. Russell apparently would not have been surprised. “One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny,” he wrote.