M. Jackson Group Update – October 2023 – Well-Being

A collection of postings on a range of issues is available on our website (www.mjacksongroup.ca).  This month’s post is again from Ken Pope’s listserv, where he kindly provides daily summaries of current articles in the field.

The Atlantic includes an article: “Eight Ways to Banish Misery” by Arthur C. Brooks.

Here are some excerpts:

To achieve greater well-being, you have two tasks. The first is to increase your level of happiness; the second is to manage your unhappiness. To know which side of the ledger to start on, some self-evaluation can be useful. One tool to help with that is known as the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) test, which rates your natural levels of happy and unhappy affect—or, in lay terms, mood—compared with those of other people. In my teaching and writing, I have found PANAS to be one of the most useful and reliable tests for self-understanding, because it separates your total well-being into discrete emotional channels.

Even without a PANAS test, you might have a pretty good idea of whether happiness or unhappiness presents the greater challenge in your life. 

One person who certainly did was the eminent 20th-century British thinker Bertrand Russell, who was not only a philosopher, mathematician, and logician but also a Nobel laureate in literature.

“Throughout my childhood,” he wrote in his 1960s autobiography, “I had an increasing sense of loneliness, and of despair of ever meeting anyone with whom I could talk.” Russell’s misery proved to be the mother of invention, though: His greatest accomplishment was to help found the field of analytic philosophy, by which he intended to take the discipline beyond academic chin-scratching and into the practical realm of solving life problems—including his own unhappiness—by breaking them down into manageable pieces. 


Russell’s self-cure for unhappiness started with a very strong hypothesis, written in his aptly titled The Conquest of Happiness: Our misery comes from errors. “I believe … unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life,” he wrote. These mistakes destroy the “zest and appetite for possible things upon which all happiness, whether of men or animals, ultimately depends.” From there, he broke down the problem into eight categories of common errors. The solution to unnecessary unhappiness, he proposed, was rectifying each one.

Error 1: Fashionable pessimism

Russell believed that people who considered themselves enlightened tended to be negative and pessimistic, and were actually proud of it. They were very focused on all that was wrong in the world, and believed “that there is nothing left to live for.” This wasn’t a new sentiment—indeed, as Clark Lawlor, a scholar of 18th-century literature writes, “Melancholy was frothily fashionable” in that period for “anyone who desired to seem in the slightest bit sensitive or clever.”

Russell mocks this pose as a pathetic conceit that should be abandoned. In case you worry that this means abandoning realism about the truth, researchers have shown that pessimism can distort one’s perception of reality.

Error 2: Social comparison

Russell rails against competition, noting that what most people fear is not falling into destitution but “that they will fail to outshine their neighbors.” The problem here is not that we are competitive per se, but that we assess our worth on the basis of what others have and do. As the old expression (sometimes attributed to Theodore Roosevelt) goes, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” 


Beside deriding this tendency to base one’s self-evaluation on comparison, Russell implies a solution: Instead of looking at what your neighbor has and feeling resentful, focus on what you have and feel grateful. Failure to do so leads to the next error.

Error 3: Envy

Envy describes the condition of being unhappy not because you have little but because someone else has more. This is a huge source of misery, as I’ve written previously here. Envy is entirely human but, left unchecked, is associated with depression, hostility, and shame. It is also ridiculous, especially when it is directed toward those whose achievements we admire.

And therein lies Russell’s remedy: “Whoever wishes to increase human happiness must wish to increase admiration.” In other words, look for people who excel in ways you would like to, and crowd out resentment with frank appreciation.

Error 4: Evading boredom

“We are less bored than our ancestors were,” Russell wrote, “but we are more afraid of boredom,” which leads us to pursue more and more sources of distraction. He wrote these words in 1930—imagine if he lived in the present time, musing thus on X (formerly Twitter) while waiting for a light to change. If he lived in our time, of course, he might also note that researchers have found a significant increase in boredom among adolescents from 2008 to 2017—during the explosion of devices and social-media use.

The solution we can infer from Russell lies not in more distraction but in less. We need to stop fearing boredom and be comfortable with what is going on around us, whether it’s exciting or not. This is an argument made eloquently by my colleague Ellen Langer, who defines mindfulness as the practice of actively noticing new things. You can do that only when you are not distracting yourself.

Error 5: Coping with fear

Clinical anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders today; according to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one-fifth of U.S. adults experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year. Russell believed that anxiety is rooted in fear of “some danger which we are unwilling to face.” Our understanding of the disorder today tends to be more biological than this; research shows that anxiety is associated with involuntary physical stress symptoms such as hyperarousal.

Whether we emphasize the biological or the psychological aspects of anxiety, Russell’s cure for it is that we name our fear and “think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar.” If we can succeed in doing this, then “in the end familiarity will blunt its terrors.” 

Another way of expressing this would be to recommend exposure therapy, which coaches patients to confront the source of their fears openly so that they start to feel less threatened.

Error 6: Senseless guilt


The point about guilt is a good one: It’s something we tend to experience when we feel undue privilege compared with others—a sort of inverse envy, you might say. One version of this is “survivor’s guilt,” which people experience when a misfortune that befalls others passes them by.

Implicitly, Russell urges us to set aside the stigma of unnecessary guilt. A good remedy for that is simple gratitude. Study after study has shown that gratitude can be practiced even when not felt, and reliably chases away the blues. This is also an effective response to the next error.

Error 7: Virtuous victimhood

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,” which they describe as claims of unjust treatment paired with assertions of moral standing. The point is not to deny that some people truly are the victims of abuse, but to suggest the risk of internalizing that harm in a defining way: When victimhood is fundamentally how you see yourself, Russell argues, that compounds unhappiness. Research supports this notion, showing that self-pity can stimulate anger and depression. To recognize injustice is right and proper, but resisting self-identifying for too long as a victim can be healthy.

Error 8: Fear of public opinion

A senior citizen I know recently told me that she was much happier since getting older, for one big reason: She finally didn’t care what others thought of her. Russell put it another way: “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, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.” 

Easier said than done, of course—research shows that our pain over social exclusion affects us physically. For example, an episode of social rejection can stimulate the anterior cingulate cortex in much the same way that stubbing your toe does.

Russell’s implication that using reason is the right way to correct the problem now has research to back it up. That same study showed that the right ventral prefrontal cortex—a brain region used in conscious reasoning—also becomes active when social pain is encountered, and moderates our distress. Just as you can reason with yourself that a stubbed toe won’t kill you, you can also decide to disregard what others think.

One of the most valuable aspects of Bertrand Russell’s logic is that he doesn’t suggest misery is in itself bad. No doubt he would have acknowledged that unhappiness is an appropriate response to many situations in life. 


What Russell is saying is that by correcting errors in our thinking, we can avoid unnecessary suffering.

As I hope I’ve shown, Russell’s philosophical assertions stand up well to social-scientific scrutiny—which underlines what an excellent strategy they make for all of us. One way to apply his eight insights into common mistaken conceptions is to turn them into a set of affirmations to start the day.

1. Pessimism won’t make me cool or smart—just wrong and unhappy. I choose to be an optimistic realist.
2. My self-worth cannot and will not be measured by what others have.
3. I will look for people to admire, and my admiration will overcome my envy.
4. Boredom is nothing to fear. I will not distract myself with mindless diversions from the business of living.
5. I will name my fears. I will face them with courage and resolve.
6. When good things happen, I won’t feel guilty. I will enjoy them and be grateful.
7. Injustice is inevitable, but I will reject a permanent identity of the victim and resist grievance.
8. The opinions of others—especially those of strangers, and especially about me—are meaningless, and I will disregard them.

I don’t know whether Bertrand Russell himself managed to live according to these affirmations—philosophers are not always known for taking their own advice. But we can certainly govern our unhappiness and live better by following his ideas.

Ken Pope

Ken Pope, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, Hector Y. Adames, Janet L. Sonne, and Beverly A. Greene

Speaking the Unspoken: Breaking the Silence, Myths, and Taboos That Hurt Therapists and Patients (APA, 2023) 

Hector Y. Adames, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, Melba J.T. Vasquez, & Ken Pope:

Succeeding as a Therapist: How to Create a Thriving Practice in a Changing World (APA, 2022)

Ken Pope, Melba J.T. Vasquez, Nayeli Y. Chavez-Dueñas, & Hector Y. Adames:

Ethics in Psychotherapy & Counseling: A Practical Guide, 6th Edition (Wiley, 2021)

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

—Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”