Adam Smith on the Nature of Happiness

Adam Smith

Found in Theory of Moral Sentiments and Essays on Philosophical Subjects (1869)

The Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790) was the author of two books, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776).

In Part 1, section 3, chapter 1 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith explores sympathy with the joy and sorrow of others. He believes that we are more apt to sympathize with joy and more likely to be able to sympathize completely—that is, feel almost as strongly as the person with whom we sympathize—than with sorrow.

In the course of explaining why we might feel more in concert with the happiness of others as we do with their sorrow, Smith writes:

What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, who is out of debt, and has a clear conscience? To one in this situation, all accessions of fortune may properly be said to be superfluous; and if he is much elevated upon account of them, it must be the effect of the most frivolous levity. This situation, however, may very well be called the natural and ordinary state of mankind. Notwithstanding the present misery and depravity of the world, so justly lamented, this really is the state of the greater part of men. The greater part of men, therefore, cannot find any great difficulty in elevating themselves to all the joy which any accession to this situation can well excite in their companion. (TMS I.iii.1.4)

Smith claims here that because there is a baseline of happiness that almost everybody meets (good health, good finances, and a clear conscience), we’re able to accurately imagine how happy they are because it isn’t that much happier than most people. This is in contrast to sorrow, which can be considerably more devastating than someone not experiencing it can imagine.

Smith is typically an astute observer, but this may feel like an occasion where he misses the mark. While poor health, indebtedness, and shame are all personal calamities, a reader may find it easy to imagine ways in which someone’s happiness might be increased dramatically from this baseline. Smith’s argument is that the increase would not be so dramatic. While something like purposeful work or raising children might increase one’s joy or satisfaction, that increase wouldn’t be so unimaginable that an observer can’t go along with the sentiment.