Agree? “Conscious Self-Denial Leaves a Man Self-Absorbed…”

“Conscious self-denial leaves a man self-absorbed and vividly aware of what he has sacrificed; in consequence it fails often of its immediate object and almost always of its ultimate purpose. What is needed is not self-denial, but that kind of direction of interest outward which will lead spontaneously and naturally to the same acts that a person absorbed in the pursuit of his own virtue could only perform by means of conscious self-denial.”

— Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

Agree, disagree? Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how a feeling of deprivation is very unhelpful–even when I’m the one doing the depriving of myself.

When I feel deprived, I feel resentful and also spend a lot of time pondering what I therefore “deserve” or “have earned” or how unfair it is.

But the opposite of a great truth is also true, and there can also be great pleasure in self-denial.

What do you think?

  • I, too, feel resentful when I feel deprived. I also agree with what Bertrand Russell said.

  • peninith

    I found a lot of ‘enlightenment’ in the story of Buddha trying to pursue awakening through self denial. He worked at it really hard, according to the story of the master. The results of his efforts are visible in quite a few scary-creepy sculptures of Buddha wasted away to a living skeleton. Eventually he decided that this working too hard at virtue was only focusing his attention on his personal being and away from spiritual matters, and he gave that up for a life of moderation.
    Now moderation–that’s the level I would like to be able to find–that middle way that’s neither self-indulgent nor self-punishing and self-denying.
    Yet I do think that the ability to undertake some self denial is a good discipline. You don’t want to get to the moral idiocy of Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, who thinks “if nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted,” and permits himself right into murder.
    Fidelity in relationships, peaceableness, financial independence, good health–all these things depend on our ability to self regulate, and often to say ‘no’ to ourselves. So I guess I would like to move myself more toward a state where I felt that I was constantly self regulating. For me the biggest challenge is about food and eating–whatever else I have managed to bring into a level of self control, eating is NOT it.

  • WordsnWorlds

    I suppose it is where the reward lies and the reasons why you are practicing self-denial. If good feelings and results come strictly from self-denial then the conscious act of self-denial would be because of the rewards it itself brings. However, if you practice self-denial for a reward that comes as a result of self-denial, you might be resentful of having to do that to get the end result. Yet, if the reward at the end of the period of self-denial is so great and your focus on that solely, you wouldn’t be consciously imposing self-denial upon yourself but would be doing it unconsciously as a means to a better end.

  • Never thought of it this way. Self-denial in the sense of denying “self” – who you are – is one thing, and I would say most likely leads to unhappiness. But self-denial in the sense of denying yourself imagined pleasure, such as not eating that whole bag of chips, is another thing. Maybe you’re unhappy for a bit, because you really wanted those crispy, salty chips, but then you forget about it and most likely feel better for it. But if you want to be one thing, or live a certain way, and spend your life being another – that you won’t forget. Seems to me.

  • I think self-denial is guilt. I was a single mother since my kids had been in diapers. It was difficult to leave them at daycare when I had to go to work. You are pulled in two directions; stay at home mom, or working mom? It can be a real challenge to feel as if you are doing something worthwhile without harming your children. Now that they are grown, I feel lighter and more free to pursue my interests. I was never the perfect parent by any means, but I furnished us with the best home, car that I could afford. I find the things I wanted as a younger mother no longer matter to me. I don’t need the better car or furniture, after all. I do enjoy peace of mind and feel grateful for such an interesting and challenging life!

  • Agree with the idea that changing one’s focus of interest outwards is the solution. Whether or not self-denial is a problem depends not just on consciousness but on mindset: are you denying yourself out of a scarcity mindset, where you are focused on what you want but do not have, or out of an abundance mindset–I am grateful for what I have and do not need more? The interpretation of denial and not the behavior or consciousness of the behavior is what makes the difference!

  • Michael Crosby

    Tomorrow I will be fasting for the whole day. One of the tenets of Stoic philosophy is to practice self denial/hardship so that the everyday proves its blessings.

  • deb

    Hhhmmmm. Much to think about. In the recent years of more is more, I think it depends on what we are denying ourselves. Some of us don’t want to deny ourselves of yet another chanel purse, a bigger better house, fancier clothes etc. etc. Some end up feeling deprived and yet these are things that really do not change our “real” quality of life. In terms of material things, perhaps moderatio is the key…after all we must prepare for our future.
    When we deny ourselves of our dreams or purpose, it can gnaw at us in a more visceral way. In the ideal world we could pursue our dreams and get lucky enough that we don’t have to deny ourselves of too much to do so…. not always so easy to do.

  • Alysa

    A-agree-e! Well put, Mr. Russell

  • Carolyn Kay

    I can deprive myself for a while, but then the bad behavior comes back with a vengeance. David Katz at Yale recommends, when trying to change behaviors, to say “I don’t”, rather than “I can’t” when tempted.,0,7652489.story

  • Mr. Socrates

    Hi everyone. I’ve started my own happiness blog at . If you are interested in what I have to say, please leave a comment. Thank you!

  • As a dieter and binge-eater (and constantly self-absorbed single woman) I definitely agree with the quote!

  • I love this quote! It goes along with some thoughts I’ve been mulling for the past few years. I wrote about it here if you’re interested.
    Thanks for reminding me of a concept I think is quite important.

  • Megan Gordon

    Self-deprivation only works for me if I tell myself I can have/do it any time I want, I simply choose not to. The effect is usually the same, but the reframing helps me to not feel deprived.

  • hehink

    My cousin just posted on FB that he has been sober for 22 years. Self denial? Definitely, and, I might add, he is one of the least self-absorbed people I know. I also know that a big reason for his success has been that he has made the choice daily that he would rather keep the good life he has and be there for his beautiful, supportive wife and daughters than return to the mayhem alcohol was capable of causing for him. So, focusing outward on his family, rather than internally on his own cravings, was a major factor in this accomplishment.

  • Jo

    I believe a feeling of Deprivation is good or bad depending on the Meaning you give it and the Story you are telling yourself of why you are deprived. As a rule of Thumb I think it is unhelpful to think about what you cannot have. It can potentially leave you bitter and negative pitying yourself about whatever left you deprived. On the other hand if you tell yourself you are in control, depriving yourself for your own good in order to establish constructive habits, it would be helpful. It would mean you tell yourself you grow and become someone greater/better….
    There are also some great Articles about the Stories you are telling yourself to change your Life here: and here:
    Great Topic!

  • Monica

    When we deny ourselves spiritual our sense of character grows in holiness. This type of self-denial is a good kind. 🙂

  • Being able to behave and act beyond our own self-interests certainty makes people happy! Especially if we are connecting with others-connecting with people is one of the most effective ways to alleviate depression.

    “Thinking Matters”

  • Very true. 100% agree to what

  • Very true. 100% agree to what
    Bertrand Russell has said.

  • Patience Advocate

    I think that whether or not self-denial creates self-absorption depends entirely on the purpose and goal of the self-denial. What are your motives? It is one thing to deny yourself donuts in order to fit into a bikini, and another to fast in solidarity with the poor.

  • heather

    I thinkmoderate self-denial is part of life’s pleasure. If we do not have “wants” there is nothing to look forward to. Self-denial makes the thing sweeter, if we eventually allow it

  • Elena

    I have a friend whose dietary rules are so rigid , that as much as I love her, I sometimes exclude her so that I don’t have to cook a lot of separate foods for her. If it is just a few people, no problem, because her diet is very healthy. But if we are all ordering out chinese, or my other friends are vegetarian, it is hard to adhere to her no wheat, no sugar, no cooking with wine or fruit juice, etc. And I never invite her to fairs or farmers markets, because she is not allowed to snack. In addition, her meals are timed, so if things run late, she falls apart, so spontaneity goes out the window. I think you would be surprised that her diet might be having such an effect on those around her. After realizing this, I follow more of an 80% healthy rule, and 20 % means you go to someone’s house and eat whatever they are serving-enjoy it, and get back to your 80% the next day.