Sunday, April 30, 2017

I've Got to Be Virtuous to Be Happy? Really?

Good grief, you mean I have to be virtuous to be happy? How do I do that? A saint I ain't!

Adam Smith said that virtue is multifaceted, the big three being prudence, justice, and beneficence. These make us more lovable, respected and admired by those around us, traits that make us loved.

These are not terms we hear a lot about usually. Other than "justice", when was the last time you heard the terms "prudence" or "beneficence"? But remember, Smith was writing in the seventeen hundreds. Let's look at what those terms might mean today.

Prudence means taking care of yourself. To be prudent means to not act recklessly. It also covers everything in your personal life, taking care of your health, money, reputation. There are plenty of resources to learn how to take care of your health and money. But reputation isn't as well explored. A prudent person is sincere and honest, doesn't volunteer everything he/she knows, is reserved and cautious in their speech and action, doesn't stick their opinion into every conversation, is a good friend and avoids melodrama in relationships, is a faithful friend, chooses friends who are sober, modest, discrete, well-behaved. I imagine the prudent person doesn't put their life on social media without careful thought of what they share. They are genuine. They say little and do much. They have a certain dignity.

For Smith the trait of justice refers to not harming or hurting others. It is a negative virtue in that it is the things you don't do - don't steal, don't murder, don't lie, don't cheat, don't abuse others, don't hurt other's feelings. It is the rule of fair play in life. Don't take advantage of others to benefit yourself. Pay your debts. Keep your promises. All of that is personal justice. The way we interact in the world is by following the rules of justice.

Beneficence is more than being fair. Beneficence means doing good. Not being bad is pretty straightforward. But doing good has no black and white rules. Smith says gratitude is one of the virtues that make up beneficence. Others include friendship, humanity, hospitality, generosity, charity.
When we see a need and want to meet it, how much is enough? What is being good when what we do may not really benefit someone as much as something else might? Should I give them money? What if spending time with them or offering information/advice would be more helpful? How do we know?Do you give to everyone who asks?

It seems to me that prudence is required to determine boundaries of beneficence. If I recklessly give to everyone and every cause and don't take care of my own financial needs, it is no longer healthy. Yet we must consider justice when we look at giving as a way to look good to the world rather than to help those in need. When we do that we are taking advantage of those in need to boost our selfish need for admiration.

While we can't expect ourselves to be perfectly virtuous, but working toward that goal is the best way to being "lovely." And many of us want to do more that to be wise and virtuous. We want to make the world a better place. That is the premise of my blogs, that we want to make a positive difference in the world.

Next post we will look at how Russ Roberts, author of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, suggests we do that.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

How Lovely Are You?

"Smith's prescription for happiness is a simple formula. To be content, you need to be loved and to be lovely. You need to be respected and respectable. You need to b praised and praiseworthy. You need to matter to other people, and you need for their image of you to be the real you - you need to earn their respect and honor and admiration honestly."  -- Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life
Did he say "simple"? Well, it might be simple, but it sure isn't easy. At least I don't find it easy to be "lovely". How about you?

Roberts points out that there are two ways to be loved: to be rich and famous or to be wise and virtuous. He says that Smith advises that we choose the second way, the way of wisdom and virtue, be lovely. the way to be lovely is to be "proper or appropriate." He means means meeting the expectations of our society, the people around us, which then allows them to interact with us in the way we expect. This is the minimum standard of loveliness.

Well, that sounds easy enough, right? Uh, what about the differences of behavior with family, intimate friends, co-workers in the workplace, strangers, officials, etc.? The expectations are often very different. Much of the world was taken aback when Michelle Obama spontaneously hugged the Queen of England on their official meeting. Expectations differ when situations differ. And expectations differ with the times. What is proper now might have been quite improper in the past. Currently the culture is quite casual compared to the past.

But Smith was more concerned with our emotions and reactions to the emotions of others than about etiquette or fashion. He was concerned with our "ability to be sympathetic or unsympathetic to the emotions of those around us." That is, how we approve or disapprove of other's behavior depending on if their reactions match ours.

"If my animosity goes beyond what the indignation of my friend can correspond to; if my grief exceeds what his most tender compassion can go along with; if my admiration is either too high or too low to tally with his own; if I laugh loud and heartily when he only smiles, or on the contrary, only smile when he laughs loud and heartily; . . ."
When our responses are out of sync, we disapprove. And greater the difference between my sentiments and yours, the more you and I will disapprove of each other's reactions because we see them as improper. We want others in our lives whose emotions harmonize with ours in the face of tragedy or triumph. We are consoled when the others empathize with our response to something we experience at a personal level.

What all that boils down to is that in order to be "lovely" we must be willing and able to be recognize and share at a personal level the experience of others in a very real way. While it may be "proper" to be courteous or to "be nice" to others, if we are truly lovely our actions will come from our emotions, emotions that we share. We are nice because we are truly kind. We are loved because we are honestly loving. Empathy is required.

We aren't expected to be emotional weather vanes, however. We cannot, after all, match the intensity of another's emotion. We are expected to have their right amount of concern for others in order to share their joys and concerns appropriately. We have enough troubles of our own. Taking on the full amount of that of others would be too hard and result in our behaving in such a way as to be overcome or to cross emotional boundaries with others.

To be lovely we must empathize enough to be motivated to respond to others appropriately. At times it can be a balancing act to share emotions at the right level of intensity for the different levels of intimacy we live in. This is the way we earn the respect of those around us and of our selves. Remember, respect is a part of love for self and others.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

How to Be Happy!

What does it take for you to be happy? More money? More time? More fame? More what?

Adam Smith gets to the heart of the matter. He wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments "Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely." And Russ Roberts explains in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life what Adam Smith was talking about.

Smith didn't mean that you must be physically attractive to be happy. And he wasn't talking about love in the narrow sense that we think of it today. Remember, Smith was an 18th Century writer and the language was a bit different than now.

He saw love as being noticed, being liked, respected, honored, Being loved means to matter to others, to be valued. And being "lovely" is to deserve love, to be the person who does that kind of loving. To be the person who does the right thing, the lovely thing.
          Handshake, Haendeschuettel, Respect, Awe, Attention             Flag, Usa, Us, United States, Patriotic, Salute

The reason we pursue money and fame is because those bring us notice, respect, etc. At least that is how it seems. But if that is so, why are there so many successful people who are unhappy? Why would someone with money and fame ever want to destroy themselves with drugs, alcohol, suicide?

Smith believed it is because even with the money and fame if you don't believe you deserve it, you will be unhappy. And while we can fool ourselves about how good we are, we know deep down how much we hide from others.

Some people think that success is what destroys us. Smith points out that "It's the passionate pursuit of success that corrodes the soul." It is when we put success ahead of all other values. How often do we choose to sacrifice time with our loved ones in order to be more successful in our careers? What choices have we made to be successful that betray our basic values.
On the other hand, what are you willing to give up in order to do the right thing, the "lovely" thing? How do we succeed as a spouse, a parent, a good friend? We are faced with these decisions every day. The challenge is to be "lovely". And to not fool ourselves about who we really are.

Smith said that if you want to be rich and famous, powerful, successful, you have to give up leisure and ease and careless security forever.
"And you have to toil and have anxiety and endure 'mortifications' - pain and shame - if you want to make it. You have to work hard. You have to give up tranquility. In return you get a great deal of attention. People want to know what you think, they look to you for how to dress and seek and behave. When you enter a room, all eyes are on you. And the envy and admiration that everyone else has for the great make the price that is paid worthwhile, at least in the eyes of many." (Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.)

Fooling ourselves about our "loveliness" is the easiest thing to do. We rationalize our behavior to look good in our own eyes. We "do good" because we are watched by some external eye or by ourselves. What if no one is watching? Who are we then? Imagine an impartial spectator who can help you know yourself and help you become a better you.

And no matter how you see yourself, it is vital that you accept yourself as "lovely. " To be happy we must notice, like, respect, honor, and value ourselves! We can only do that when we are honest with ourselves. Humility is required.

In my next post I'll explore Smith's ideas of how to be "lovely."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

An 18th Century Guide for the 21st Century

Psychology, Psyche, Mask, Wire Rack

As it turns out, this eighteenth century economist [Adam Smith] has some really good advice for people in the twenty-first century on how to live a good life.  Since he was an economist, you'd think he was all about money. But he was also a philosopher and explored how money does or doesn't make people happy.

In Russ Roberts' book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, Roberts takes Smith's eighteenth century prose and interprets it in easy to understand twenty-first century language. And it is very revealing.

He explains how we all behave in our own self-interests, even when our behavior benefits others. Now before you get all wound up about being generous and beneficent, explore that a bit.Smith writes "What is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of other?" In other words, why do we act selflessly, sacrificing our own well-being to help others?

Maybe we are inherently kind and decent, filled with compassion, caring about others and hating to see them suffer. Yet how MUCH are you willing to sacrifice? What causes us to recoil from selfishly putting our own minor suffering ahead of the despair of millions who are displaced by war or starving because of famine. Or do we? We see the horrific suffering of others on the news daily. And we care - briefly. Then we go right back to looking out for number one, ourselves. It is just too much for us to deal with.

And so we "do what we can", donate a few dollars, pray, hold fundraisers. Those are all good things. And we do them so that we feel better. No judgement here. It is just the way we deal with overwhelming needs.

What Smith wants us to do is to be honest with ourselves about why we do things. Because if we fool ourselves we will not be happy. There will always be that part of us that knows we didn't do everything we could do.

Is he asking us to give up what we have, to not strive for success, to reject financial comforts? No, he is not. He is asking us to get real. To do what we feel we can do and to accept ourselves as we are, not expect ourselves to be more than we really are.

Not so easy, at least for me. I always want to do more than I can. But I also know that I won't, because I won't give up my health, well-being, or safety. And I must come to terms with that, to acknowledge my boundaries and accept them. What about you?

Have you had that inner conversation recently about why you do what you do? I encourage you to read further in the book with me to not only know yourself but to hear how Smith says you can be happy.

More in my next post. I encourage comments!

(The book is available from Amazon: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Roberts, Russ (2014) Hardcover, 1900, Hardcover, $6.51. Or get it from the library, as I did.)

Sunday, April 16, 2017

There's This Book

I picked out this book because I was curious about the title. I didn't know what it was about, exactly. But I was really curious. So I brought it home from the library and it set there waiting for me to pick it up. Days later I did.

As it turns out it is truly a surprise. The last person I would have thought would provide useful and relevant guidance for human happiness is an economist from the 1700's!

The book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, an unexpected guide to human nature and happiness by Russ Roberts. I had never heard of Adam Smith. And when I learned who he was I was pretty skeptical about him leading me to happiness. I'm not out to get rich, and I thought that was what economists were about.

What a surprise. For Smith, happiness was about so much more than accumulation of money. He published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. It is pretty much a forgotten text. His famous work was An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations published in 1776. And I doubt if anyone I know ever read either book. I know I wouldn't have been interested in either. But now here I am reading a book that explores his first book and really liking it!

Part of why no one reads his work now is that the language is rather stilted and not easy for 21st century readers. For instance the first sentence is forty-two words! So one might have to read it several times to get the gist of what he is saying:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles to his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.
See what I mean? But basically it is a very hopeful and positive perspective. He posits that human nature is basically generous, that we want happiness for others and that it is necessary for our won happiness to contribute to their happiness.

Candle, White, Decoration, Celebration, Light, Holiday  I'm only about a quarter of the way through the book. But I will be sharing more of it as I go along. I find it interesting that he believes we naturally do things for the good of others without expecting anything in return. It is human nature.

We need to get back to acting from that nature to find happiness. So, yes, I guess Adam Smith can change our lives!

Check back Wednesday for more about human nature and happiness.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Who is the last person you thanked? Was it a reflexive "thanks" or was it a thoughtful and specific "thank you for _________"?

Much of the time we thank people out of habit, without really thinking about it. But there are so many people that do things that we take for granted and seldom thank. If we want to create a better world, we need to be aware of what we are thankful for and tell those folks that you appreciate what they do.

For instance, have you ever thanked a veteran or active duty military person "Thank you for your service"? Or have you ever told a fast food worker that they do a good job of keeping the dining area clean? How about a neighbor that does something for you without being asked. We have a neighbor who often takes our trash to the curb when he takes his out. And he brings the container back when it is empty! Another neighbor keeps an eye on our house when we are out of town.

Being aware of our gratitude is important for our own emotional/spiritual health. And keeping a gratitude journal can help you keep a more positive attitude. But I suggest we take it beyond ourselves and thank people directly for their actions. Why keep our positive attitude all to ourselves?

Tell someone "thank you" that you've not thanked before. It feels good to be appreciated. You might make someone's day. And outward gratitude enhances your well-being, too.

"Being instructed to express gratitude was particularly powerful for participants who came into the study with higher symptoms of depression. In their case, there was a direct link between how often they expressed gratitude in their relationships and how much more positive they felt one month after the experiment." (
Give it a try. Face to face, by phone, or in a note, thank someone today.

Think about who you've not thanked for what they do or did: a neighbor; a teacher; a librarian; a police officer; a firefighter; a hospital employee; your mail carrier; the janitor at your job or church; a cashier where you shop regularly. Just be aware of who does something that benefits you and/or your community. 

Can you think of others we might thank? Would you share your thoughts in the comments?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

What Do You Care?

What do you care about? 

And how do you care? 

What exactly do you do to resolve the problems you care most about?

Which problems are those? Homelessness, hunger, child abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, crime in your community, and there are so many more thing to care about. But what do you feel most passionate about?

And how do you, yourself, help? Everyone can do something, even small things, that will make a positive difference.

What do YOU do?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Where Did You Do Your Good Deed Today?

I often think I don't have many opportunities to do good deeds when I am nearly housebound. Some weeks I am out of the house maybe once or twice. And I don't spend much time "out and about" to see people needing help.

But that is short sighted. There are lots of good deeds that are little things that you can do to simply keep in touch with someone else who might be isolated. Or a note to cheer someone up.

I'd overlooked how people do good deeds on the roads. I usually let people into my lane of traffic if they signal and patiently wait for pedestrians to cross the street. I suppose those are good deeds - or just plain courtesy. Be here are some folks who did some real good deeds on the road.

Get more engaged and find many ways to do good deeds. Give us some example you can think of.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

What Can I Say?

I sit here trying to decide what to write in this post. And I don't know quite what to say. I want to make a positive difference, I want to motivate others to make a positive difference. I want us to create a better world.

But what can I say here that might contribute to that? What might motivate you?

So, I'm letting Michael Jackson speak.

By the way, I am having some computer issues, so if the posts don't come out on schedule, please forgive. Keep coming back!