Adam Smith: Helping yourself vs.helping the world

Adam Smith: Helping yourself vs.helping the world

Adam Smith

The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as one of the inalienable rights. This is not the pursuit of collective happiness, and the Declaration does not openly urge us to work altruistically for the happiness of others. The happiness referred to is clearly individual, and perhaps “pursuit of happiness” is a way of defining what the founders meant by liberty: Liberty=my ability to determine what makes me individually happy and pursue it. The same year the Declaration was written, 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, the widely admired work that is the basis of trickle-down economics. Adam Smith argued that a person pursuing his own economic self-interest indirectly works in the interest of the public good. If I pursue my own happiness diligently, an unintended consequence would be the increase of happiness of the entire society. Let’s say I spend time not working on service projects, but on finding inner joy. The joy I achieve would imbue my interactions with others, and would begin to ripple from me into the wider world, even if this weren’t my declared intention. From this standpoint, it is unnecessary for me to work in the wounded world. I could simply focus on my own happiness, and the result—perhaps unintended—would be the increase of happiness in the wider world.

Let me complicate this, however. What is this “happiness” that we are pursuing, and how can we achieve it? Martin Seligman has been a key figure in the positive psychology movement, and has spent considerable time trying to describe happiness. It’s a fairly elusive concept, as it turns out. I recently saw one of the TED talks he gave, where he talks about three kinds of happiness: 1) The Pleasurable Life—parties, fun, Disney, zip-lining, hanging with the supermodels and the like. 2) The Life of Engagement—the experience of flow, which refers to those times when we are totally immersed in an activity—a musician totally immersed in music, a lover totally immersed in love. 3) The Meaningful Life: service to a others & to a cause greater than myself. Here’s the link. I know your time is in short supply, but I encourage you to invest 20 minutes of your time to watch it.   Link to Seligman Ted Talk

Seligman says that the Pleasurable Life is primarily inherited. We come into the world with a certain disposition—miserable or sunny—and there is only a 15% chance that this can be increased through anything I can do. Not only is pleasure relatively beyond our ability to change it, Seligman reports that this first type of happiness—pleasure—goes away fairly quickly.  A week or so after I return from the fun vacation, my happiness level returns to about where it was before I left. The second type—the Engaged Life—is one of total, intense concentration, but the feeling goes away soon after that peak experience passes. Seligman and his colleagues have shown that the most durable kind of happiness is the last—service to others. When I serve others or a cause greater than myself, this lasts.

Let me sum this up. Let’s say I buy the Adam Smith idea that while I pursue happiness, a byproduct of my increased happiness would be the increased happiness of those around me, even if this were not my intention. Forget the world—focus on getting more individual freedom, beauty, joy, peace, and love. No need for challenging myself to do service to others so far, right? But the most durable type of happiness derives not from simple pleasure-seeking, or even experiences of “flow.” The most durable happiness derives from a life of service to others, or to a greater cause. So even if I begin with the most selfish of goals—the pursuit of my individual happiness—the pathway to that individual happiness is a life of service.

The psychologist Sidney Jourard, who specialized during his career in defining human happiness, wrote: “Actualization of self cannot be sought as a goal in its own right. . . Rather, it seems to be a by-product of active commitment of one’s talents to some cause, outside the self, such as the quest for beauty, truth, or justice.”   This echoes with the Dalai Lama said: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”   My own happiness and the happiness of the world are inextricably linked.

Let me conclude this discussion with a parable. There was once a wise man who came upon a young man who was meditating. “What are you doing?” the old man asked. The young man said that he wanted peace most of all. He had decided, however, that he couldn’t change the conflicts in the world, so was spending his time attempting to find internal peace through meditation. Several days later, the young man was walking along the seashore, and spotted the old man with a large machine that purified seawater, then released the water back into the ocean. Perplexed, the young man asked, “What in the world are you doing?” The old man answered that he was attempting to purify just this small section of the ocean. The young man laughed and said, “That makes no sense. You can’t purify this section of the ocean alone. The ocean currents will mix the newly purified water with the salt water around it. You’re wasting your time.” The old man answered, “Exactly.”

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