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.)

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