Midweek Review
‘Impersonal interests’ for happiness

by V. Basnayake
An article I wrote on Russell’s sixfold path to personal happiness (Island Midweek Review, 27 September) was limited to what was in Russell’s The conquest of happiness, without any comment there on. One of the Russellian paths to personal happiness was "impersonal interests". In the present article I suggest that there are two groups of impersonal interests. The first group consists of light activities (like newspaper reading) which are meant to fill one’s leisure time and there should be a multiplicity of them. The second group consists of one or a few highly selected activities (like hobbies) which go much deeper and are cultivated for their own sake and not for mere leisure. Both groups are "impersonal" in that they save the mind from being occupied with unhappiness- producing "personal" interests (like envy, jealousy, pettiness and self-absorption) but beyond that they are vastly different. The potential for happiness is greater with the second group than with the first.

The ultimate aim is to find work and play to be two sides of a coin, both of which give pleasure. In the meantime, for most people there is a distinction between work and leisure. Work is one’s calling, career, full-time job, vocation, which provides one’s livelihood. When the day’s work is over, it becomes leisure time and finally sleep.

Impersonal interests

As the article pointed out, "‘Impersonal interests’ are what lie beyond the "personal" interests of one’s work at the factory, office or professional chambers. They are light and relaxing and meant to take the mind off the day’s work which is over. Unlike work, they are things you don’t have to do systematically and you don’t keep an account of them. They are pastimes. Typical impersonal interests are amusements, watering the garden, having the radio or TV on in the background, watching games, going for walks and visits, chatting about things other than work, reading newspapers and magazines." Other terms for impersonal interests are "diversions", "recreations", and "relaxation".

Russell advocated that a person should have multiple impersonal interests, so that the loss of one of them would not seriously upset the person’s happiness.

Impersonal interests are meant also to divert the mind from getting bogged down in the all-too-personal interests of pettiness, self-absorption, fear, envy and jealousy.

There is a risk that the very desultoriness of this group of impersonal interests, with the individual jumping from one interest to another without any logical connection between them, can lead to boredom. In an essay on "Work and leisure" Aldous Huxley (in Along the road, 1925) remarks that "Watching other people play games, looking at cinema films, reading newspapers and indifferent fiction, listening to radio concerts and gramophone records and going from place to place in trains and omnibuses - these, I suppose, are the principal occupations of the working mans’s leisure. Their cheapness is all that distinguishes them from the diversions of the rich...An increase of leisure will be accompanied with a correspondingly increased incidence of those spiritual maladies - ennui, restlessness, spleen and general world weariness - which now afflict and have always afflicted the leisured classes now and in the past...There will be an enormous increase in the demand for such time-killers and substitutes for thought as newspapers, films, fiction, cheap means of communication and wireless telephones...And enormous numbers of people, hitherto immune from these mental and moral diseases, would be afflicted by ennui, depression and universal dissatisfaction."

For an interest to become meaningful and zestful, it should be something where the knowledge and/or the skill coming from it grows into a respectable degree of expertise.

With regard to these impersonal interests (that is, interests lying outside the definitive, vocational work by which the person earns his or her living), there is then the "pastime" category of impersonal interests described above. There is also another category of impersonal interests where the interests go much deeper than the light, shallow "pastime" variety. In this second category the impersonal interests are confined to one highly selected activity, or no more than a very few highly selected activities, which are practiced in depth. They are constructive and grow hopefully towards a creative output. The output may take the form of exhibitions (like Dr. T. S. U. de Zylva’s and Dr. M. S. Weerakoon’s photographs), performances (Dr. J. Gulasekharam at the keyboard) and publications (Dr. R. L. Spittel’s Vanished trails).

What shall we call this deeper category of impersonal interests? "Hobbies" are examples of highly selected activities but "hobbies" are usually regarded as mere self-entertainments. The musical outputs of Dr. Gerald Cooray and the late Professor Earle de Fonseka have been so outstanding that it would be too shallow to say that music was their "hobby". The term "side-interest" has a derogatory ring about it. Since the deeply cultivated side-activity supplements the activities connected with one’s definitive professional or other work, they can be called "supplemental interests", but no such term exists at present.

I do not know of a specific term for this kind of activity. The term "impersonal interests", however, applies to them too, in the sense that they can divert the mind from being filled with negative emotions such as pettiness, fear, envy and jealousy.

Kinds of deeper impersonal interests

Lines of activity which are voluntarily cultivated by individuals with zest and for zest, outside their vocational commitments, are very various. My own colleagues in science and medicine with whom I have had the pleasure of working, show this variety. If I may rapidly recall the names of a couple of dozen of them, here is a list of them in alphabetical order.

* Professor Ajith Abeysekera (chemistry) who is an AssistantConductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka.

* B. J. P. Alles (educationist) who is "crazy" about car engines and spends a lot of his time dismantling and re-assembling them.

* Professor Arjuna Aluwihare (surgery, and former Chair, University Grants Commission) is a sensitive cellist.

* Dr. Mark Amerasinghe (orthopaedic surgeon and anatomist) has found his metier in the art of dramatic stage monologues. His wife Dr. Premini Amerasinghe (radiologist) writes, especially poetry.

* Professor S. N. Arseculeratne (microbiological) who has written a history of Sri Lankans in Malaysia. He also goes often of a morning to the Peradeniya campus grounds to fly his model aeroplanes.

* The late Professor Senaka W. Bibile (pharmacologist) was deeply interested in aeronautics (he always visited the cockpit of the plane during flights) and in Sri Lanka’s irrigation systems (he kept a file on them).

* Mano Chanmugam (engineer) is a pianist and the local representative of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

* Dr. Gerald Cooray (geologist) was a leading choral conductor in Sri Lanka.

* The late Professor Hilary Crusz (zoologist) was a painter in his spare time.

* Dr. Malik Fernando (medical practitioner) is a sailor and sportsman and President of the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society.

* The late Professor Earle de Fonseka (community medicine) was conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka.

* Mr. Anselm de Silva (Community Medicine) is a leading herpetologist.

* Rev. Fr. Mervyn Fernando (educationist) who is also an astronomer and a photographer.

* Professor Carlo Fonseka (physiology, and now Director-General of the Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO) is a lyricist and composer of Sinhala songs and he has produced a tape of them called Carlochita Gee.

* Dr. Susantha Goonatilake (economist) has published several books on science and philosophy.

* Dr. Kingsley Heendeniya (medical administrator) is frequently writes feature articles and general knowledge tests called GIST in the newspapers; the 160th of these has just appeared.

* The late Dr. H. D. W. Jansz (physiologist) was a keen amateur astrologer.

* Professor M. T. M. Jiffry (Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sri Jayewardenepura) paints in vivid colours.

* The late Professor S. R. Kottegoda was a leading photographer and he published an illustrated book on the wild flowers of Sri Lanka.

* Professor Vijay Kumar (chemist) has expertise on Intellectual Property Rights and he is on the UN Commission on Science & Technology for Development.

* Dr. Lalith Perera (urologist) is a musician (flute, voice, music criticism) and Dr. Selvi Perera (general physician) sings in choirs.

* Dr. C. G. Uragoda (chest physician) is a noted medical historian.

* Kamini Vitarana (biologist) spends much of her free time on biological conservation activities and on improving social conditions in Balangoda.

* Vidya Jyothi Ray Wijewardene (inventor) paints scenes of nature.

A word of apology to the many others who have been unintentionally not mentioned in the above short list.

By way of illustrating the deep degree of involvement of individuals in their supplemental impersonal interests, let me quote a passage from a speech made by the geologist, Dr. Gerald Cooray, at a symposium of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science in 1996. He was the conductor of the Colombo Philharmonic Choir which he founded in 1955, and he described the peak experiences he has had with the choir.

"One part of my life has been devoted to music, and specifically to the conducting of choral music. I am most attracted to the choral works of Bach, Mozart and Handel...and what fascinates me is the scientific rules behind much of what they composed. Take any of the choruses from Mozart’s Requiem Mass or C Minor Mass, both of which I have conducted in Colombo, and you will know that the great beauty of their sound is largely due to what is known in musical terms as the fugue.

In this, a single musical theme is sung in succession by each voice part, the resulting intertwining and intermingling of the different voice parts, which are governed by scientific rules, producing music of great beauty. For me, as a conductor, it was necessary to recognise how each part related to the others and to bring each part out in its turn so that the whole is a sound of great beauty. I am not exaggerating when I say that there have been times when the sound produced by the Colombo Philharmonic Choir in one of these works has made my hair stand on end, and at such times I have been in the aesthetic domain with great intensity."