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Will Adam Smith Make You Happy?

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Ray Keating - published on 04/09/15 - updated on 06/07/17

A look at Russ Robert's new book "How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life"

Quick, catchy guides on “how to be happy” seem ubiquitous these days, perhaps reflecting widespread unhappiness, misunderstanding what it means to be happy and feeding the desire for easy answers to life’s challenges. Perhaps there’s some plain old selfishness at work as well.

Much of today’s “happiness industry” feeds off an unspoken selfishness. The individual’s inward, emotional feelings of happiness rank as the central reason for existence. One exists to be happy, which in part is why in 2012 the United Nations declared an International Happiness Day (there’s a Facebook page too). Whatever makes me happy, that’s the important thing. This idea of happiness has very little to do with anybody else, except to the extent that others serve as a means to one’s own happiness.

Human nature does not stop at the church door so such notions of happiness naturally have found their way into some religious circles. The ever-smiling prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen falls into this camp. His proclamations seem far more focused on "me and my needs" than on anyone else’s—including Jesus Christ. For instance, in his Everyday a Friday (by which he does not mean Good Friday), Osteen wrote, “Don’t waste your time with anyone who drags you down instead of making you better.” Try as I might, I don’t recall that from scripture.

There is an author, however, who proposes to offer substantive thoughts on happiness in the twenty-first century in the 256 year-old writings of an economist. Russ Roberts’s book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, introduces contemporary readers to the central ideas Smith first explored in 1759.

Adam Smith, an eighteenth-century Scotsman and author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, earned the reputation as the “father of economics.” With his Wealth of Nations, Smith not only wrote the first comprehensive and systematic analysis of the economy, but provided foundational, timeless insights on the workings of free markets, and the benefits of economic growth that befall to everyone. The Wealth of Nations arguably holds just as much relevance today as it did when published in 1776.

But what could Smith tells us about happiness? Isn’t his Wealth of Nations all about capitalism and happy selfishness? No; not quite, and not anywhere near that.

The “father of economics” was not an economist. Economics in his day came under the broader realm of philosophy; Smith was a professor of moral philosophy. His first great work in fact was not the Wealth of Nations; it was his 1759 The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It remains unknown, or at least an untouched work, even for Smith’s economist descendants. This was the case for Roberts. In his Moral Sentiments, Smithgrappled with the meaning of life and examined how people behave. Staying true to Smith, Roberts refreshingly explores rather old-fashioned notions of virtue, prudence, justice, honor, propriety, wisdom and beneficence in a way that few books on happiness do today.

Given man’s penchant for doing the wrong thing, Smith created the “impartial spectator” to explain acts of selflessness, sacrifice, and compassion, and tried to answer generally why people want to do the right thing. Roberts explains Smith’s impartial spectator as “a figure we imagine whom we converse with in some virtual sense, an impartial, objective figure who sees the morality of our actions clearly. It is this figure we answer to when we consider what is moral or right.” Roberts later calls this “stepping outside yourself” in an act of mindfulness, that is, “the art of paying attention instead of drifting through life oblivious to your flaws and habits.”

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