Portrait of Adam Smith

Adam Smith on the Nature of Happiness

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:

No theme

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)