Adam Smith on Happiness, Tranquility, and Enjoyment

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 III, chapter 3 of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith discusses how people deal with misfortune and hardship. It is part of human nature, claims Smith, that when someone experiences a permanent misfortune—for example, the loss of a leg—it does not follow that the suffering they experience at the time of that misfortune is also permanent. People tend to adjust to their “new normal”, assuming it can’t be changed.

Happiness consists in tranquillity and enjoyment. Without tranquillity there can be no enjoyment; and where there is perfect tranquillity there is scarce any thing which is not capable of amusing. But in every permanent situation, where there is no expectation of change, the mind of every man, in a longer or shorter time, returns to its natural and usual state of tranquillity. In prosperity, after a certain time, it falls back to that state; in adversity, after a certain time, it rises up to it. (FROM: Chap. III.—: Of the Influence and Authority of Conscience) - Adam Smith

Not everyone returns to this emotional equilibrium at the same rate, or as successfully. Someone with a strong and practiced sense of self-command will, like an impartial spectator who does not know about their loss, accept the change in fortune and from there proceed to “enjoy all the ordinary pleasures both of solitude and of society.” (III.3.29)

Someone who lacks self-command may instead wish to return to the time before their misfortune. So long as they indulge in wishing, they can never be at peace—the loss will occupy their thoughts.

This inability to be at peace with one’s situation and regard it as the impartial spectator would, to be instead occupied with self-pity or regret, stands in the way of experiencing happiness when the opportunity for enjoyment arises.