18th Century Self-Help: Life Advice from Adam Smith

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading through Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s book at time reads like a shockingly modern self-help book, with good advice about how to deal with adversity and how unrealistic expectations are the source of much misery. Here’s a couple choice bits from a middle chapter, “Of the Influence and Authority of Conscience”:

The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice overrates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity an extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.

Examine the records of history, recollect what has happened within the circle of your own experience, consider with attention what has been the conduct of almost all the greatly unfortunate, either in private or public life, whom you may have read of, or heard of, or remember, and you will find that the misfortunes of by far the greater part of them have arisen from their now knowing when they were well, when it was proper for them to sit still and to be contented.”

I’m reminded of two things here. One is recent research in the psychology of happiness (see for example Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness). One of the findings from this work is that people consistently predict that permanent changes in their wealth (such as winning the lottery) or health (not all health changes, but things like losing a limb) will make them far happier or unhappier than they end up being.

In a totally different vein, Vonngeut said something similar but pithier, one of my favorite quotes of his:

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ”If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

A second Smith quote from the same chapter gives explicit advice about what to do when you are feeling down. Smith emphasizes the role of “the impartial spectator”, a figure we summon in our minds when we try to judge our own actions, and which helps us act morally when we get lost in the moment. That figure is easier to summon when we are among strangers than friends – in interacting with strangers, we are forced to consider how another views us who is relatively impartial and disconnected. Smith turns this into a bit of advice for when you are feeling blue:

Are you in adversity? Do not mourn in the darkness of solitude, do not regulate your sorrow according to the indulgent sympathy of your intimate friends; return, as soon as possible, to the daylight of the world and of society. Live with strangers, with those who know nothing, or care nothing, about your misfortune; do not even shun the company of enemies; but give yourself the pleasure of mortifying their malignant joy, by making them feel how little you are affected by your calamity, and how much you are above it.

Self-help, ca. 1759!

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1 Comment

  1. Or as Burton says in The Anatomy of Melancholy somewhere, “Be not idle, be not alone”.