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Patrik Edblad

On Happiness

in Happiness

Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) was a Scottish moral philosopher, pioneer of political economy and a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

He is also the lead character in Russ Roberts’ great book ”How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness”.

In it, Roberts writes about a friend who has an incredibly demanding and unsatisfying job. Even though he has high blood pressure and is missing out on quality time with his children, he still won’t quit because he is making a lot of money.

Roberts writes:

In ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’, Smith recalls a story from Plutarch’s Lives that may shed light on my friend’s inability to quit his job. It’s the story of Pyrrhus, the King of Epirus, a region of Greece. Pyrrhus is planning an attack on Rome. His trusted adviser, Cineas – Smith calls him the King’s ‘favourite’ – thinks it’s a bad idea.

Cineas is an impressive guy, a brilliant wordsmith and negotiator whom the King often uses to represent himself. Even though he has the trust and ear of the King and is a favourite of his, it’s usually not a great idea to tell him he’s ‘making a mistake’, so Cineas takes a roundabout approach. Here’s how Cineas begins in Plutarch’s version:

“The Romans, Sir, are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many warlike nations; if God permits us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

“Well”, says Pyrrhus, “once we conquer Rome, we’ll be able to subdue all of Italy”.
“And then what?” asks Cineas.
“Sicily would be conquered next.”
“And then what?” asks Cineas.
“Libya and Carthage would be next to fall.”
“And then what?” asks Cineas.
“Then all of Greece” says the King.”
“And what shall we do then?” asks Cineas.
Pyrrhus answers, smiling: “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, by drinking all day and diverting ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

Then Cineas brings down the hammer on the King: “And what hinders Your Majesty from doing so now?”

We have all the tools of contentment at hand already. You don’t have to conquer Italy to enjoy the fundamental pleasures of life. Stay human and ‘subdue the rat within’. Life’s not a race. It’s a journey to savour and enjoy. Ambition – the relentless desire for more – ‘can eat you up.’

In these times, when we are constantly bombarded with implicit messages about the importance of money, fame and status, it’s more important than ever to remind ourselves that we don’t need to reach a certain level of success before we can be happy.

In fact, chasing happiness this way will inevitably get you caught in what psychologists call the ‘hedonic treadmill’ – the human tendency to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals.

According to the hedonic treadmill, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem with the result that there is absolutely no gain at all in the happiness stakes (1).

The next time you find yourself thinking that you need to accomplish a certain goal in order to be happy, remind yourself that this is an illusion. When you accomplish one goal, there will always be a bigger one waiting round the corner.

If you want to be happy, be grateful for this very moment; be happy for the fact that you’re breathing, that you have functioning eyesight and the freedom to choose to read this article right now. All we have to do to be happy is to be grateful for the blessings we tend to always take for granted.

“If you want to be happy, be.”
– Leo Tolstoy

Footnotes

  1. Hedonic Treadmill