Stepping off the self-preoccupation machine

As a child, the great Bertrand Russell was very unhappy. He remained unhappy until he hit upon a rather old idea: forget about the self. He realized that self-absorption was an obstacle to genuine happiness.

As the years went by, Russell tells us, he seemed to be getting more and more happy for he had learned how to focus his attention on external objects.  “Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to centre my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection.”

At the far end of self-absorption lies death. Always cataloging your foibles, your shortcomings, your peccadilloes, your sins, your what have you, will only make you depressed, fatalistic, and–quite frankly–a bore to be around. You are nothing; you are shit. Look elsewhere then: the way of self-forgetting leads to deliverance.

We need to be careful, though. Realize that “self-preocuppiers” are not necessarily selfish persons; they are individuals out-of-joint with themselves. And they’ve gotten into the habit of anxiously rolodexing through their faults for no good reason apart from “wound licking.” But wound licking does not entail healing.  Quite the opposite.

We need to be careful, too, not to confuse self-reflection with self-preoccupation. Self-reflection, the hallmark of philosophy since Socrates, seeks to “know thyself”–it is good therapy for the soul–whereas self-preoccupation is a deeply entrenched habit of dwelling morbidly on one’s injuries. Self-preoccupation actually precludes self-examination.

Russell shows us how to step off the self-preoccupation machine. Look outward (or look deeply inward). Make life, as much as possible, into one long, beautiful meditation on the world–the world as it is or the world as it could be. Whenever you’re so immersed in an activity that you feel attuned to things, whenever you pay attention to your children with a certain joyful outlook, whenever you take a special interest in the craft of writing or painting or chess, whenever you get involved in a just political cause, then you’ll be happiest.

The joy of doing with our entire being: that doing is freeing.


Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness