Sunday, May 7, 2017

Living in the Modern World

We've been exploring the ideas about an 18th century economist named Adam Smith through the perspective of Russ Roberts' book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, an unexpected guide to human nature and happiness. Even though Adam Smith was an economist he had philosophical thoughts about human happiness that weren't about money. And his ideas are just as appropriate today, if not more so, than they were in the 1700's. His philosophical thoughts are in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Smith proposed that we are happy when we are loved and when we are "good", or lovable. And when we want to make the world a better place, we do that by simply being better people.
"If you want to make the world a better place, work on being trustworthy, and honor those who are trustworthy. Be a good friend and surround yourself with worthy friends. Don't gossip. Resist the joke that might hurt someone's feelings, even when it is clever. And try not to laugh when your friend tells you that clever joke at someone else's expense. Being good is not just good for you and those around you, but because it helps others to be good as well. Set a good example, and by your loneliness you will not only be loved, but you may influence the world." Russ Roberts, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.
Roberts reinforces my belief that every action we take affects those around us and through them ripples outward influencing other way beyond us. When we approve of someone's behavior, be it good or bad, we are encouraging other people to that behavior. So if we want the world to be better we need to encourage that which is good, that positively affects others. That is part of our personal power to create change at an organic level.

This seems terribly important today when there is so much harmful behavior in the spotlight, in the news, on social media. We can influence that in two ways - expressing disapproval and/or refusing to giving a lot of energy to enhancing it. Negative attention is still attention. And some people seek any attention they can get.

Yet it is hard to determine how much disapproving attention is enough and how much is feeding the "attention-getters". Isn't it more effective to invest our energy in influencing those with the power to make changes? What reward or punishment is effective in each case? Sometimes eliminating positive rewards, financial for instance, is more powerful than voicing disapproval alone. Boycotts can be powerful, especially when combined with demonstrations.

Obviously, group actions are more powerful than the actions of only one of us. But that certainly doesn't excuse individuals doing nothing. If you really want to make the world a better place, BE THE CHANGE.

When we identify a problem we need to determine if "the problem" is a symptom of a greater problem. We can waste a great deal of energy and resources to change the symptom that doesn't get dealt with. Take the War on Drugs, for instance. What is the root of drug use? Is it just the availability of drugs? No, the addict is attempting to escape something, trying to escape some kind of pain. It is similar to the problem of terrorism. Who becomes radicalized to become a terrorist? Is it the person who understands his personal power and has the resources to pursue a better life? Or is it the young person who sees no future that is better than what they are living in. They fall for the rhetoric of someone promising them greatness, comfort, freedom.

Dealing with the causes is a big and often overwhelming task. All too quickly we give up making those changes and try to overcome the persons we define as "the problem." It wouldn't be easy to change "the problem" into a challenge that together with others we could influence in a positive way. However, pushing someone to change doesn't work. Often it is better to leave some things alone rather than try to steer them. See? It isn't easy. And yet it is important.

Smith reminded us that politics isn't where life happen, even though it affects our lives in all kinds of ways, good and bad. But we have so much more to do outside that world of politics. Roberts advises:
"Do you want to make the world a better place? Talk to your kids. Go on a date with your spouse without checking your e-mail. Read more Adam Smith and Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse and less of the Daily Kos and the Drudge Report. Smile at someone you don't know or even like. Be nice to your parents, because you can never repay what they did for you. None of this necessarily shows up in some measure of gross domestic product. These actions don't help pay the bills. They aren't usually on our to-do list. so we don't get the satisfaction of checking them off. A week can go by and nothing will happen if we don't do them. But I think they are the stuff of the good life."
 What it boils down to is that all the little things we do affect others. Think of positive behaviors you have  done, ones you can do in the future. What if everyone behaved that way? Pay it forward. Make the world better.

Next post we'll look at happiness from another perspective. Come back to see.

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