What Ben Franklin Got Happiness Wrong

“How to build a lifeis a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to build a happy life.


Mmost of The happiness scholars I cite in this column are alive and kicking, because the scientific study of human happiness, drawing on social psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience, is only a few decades old. But the philosophical premise behind this modern discipline goes back centuries. The subject was of particular interest to American Enlightenment thinkers of the late 18th century. The most famous, Thomas Jefferson, declared the pursuit of happiness an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson later explained that the Declaration, including this strange claim to happiness, was simply “an expression of the American spirit”. The American mind of one of Jefferson’s other founding fathers was particularly influential with regard to the philosophy of happiness: that of Benjamin Franklin. That’s according to filmmaker Ken Burns, who also dubs him our nation’s first teacher of happiness. Burns has spent the past two years immersed in the spirit of Franklin, to direct a documentary about the man which is currently airing on PBS.

Franklin believed that everyone naturally seeks happiness. “The desire for happiness in general is so natural to us that the whole world seeks it, he wrote in his memoir in a section titled “On True Happiness.” He dedicated his life to defining it for his own fellow Americans and advising them on how they could work to obtain it. But like so many people who give advice on how to make a living, it’s not at all clear that he lived his own life in the happiest way. We can still learn a lot today by following his advice and avoiding his mistakes.


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Ohat made franklin mean by happiness, I asked Burns? Pleasant feelings? Not even close: “For Franklin, happiness meant lifelong learning in the marketplace of ideas,” Burns told me. “In other words, self-improvement.”

This conception of happiness encompasses the great contradiction of American culture: individualistic in its focus on the self, but communal in its dependence on a cooperative market. Additionally, Franklin defines happiness as an endless journey, not a comforting destination. This journey could be an exciting adventure or a terrible curse, depending on your perspective.

Franklin’s idea of ​​who could seek happiness in this way was particularly radical. In Europe at the time, mostly aristocratic men with means could have pursued lifelong learning in a formal sense. Franklin rejected this. He believed that “this quest was not for the upper classes,” Burns told me, “but rather for everyone, from the wealthy to the masses.” Burns hastened to add that this idea was far from widespread in Franklin’s day – Franklin himself had slaves in his household and equal rights for women were still a long way off – but this philosophy set in motion the unique American aspiration.

I believe America could benefit from a recommitment to this fundamental conception of happiness today. We need a society based on the belief that we can all learn and grow throughout our lives, and on the humility to recognize that none of us has perfect knowledge, that there is always much to learn. This requires a true market of ideas where iron sharpens iron, not uncompromising patrols of corporations, universities and social media on the lookout for misconceptions. And we must work with joy to make these ideals accessible to all, without exception.

Franklin himself ceaselessly sought the happiness of which he wrote. For Burns, this is what sets Franklin apart from other founders, literally as well as philosophically. He was “the least static of them, a moving object all his life,” Burns said. The documentary depicts a traveling man seemingly unable to content himself with his growing worldly success, always inventing, trying new things and traveling the world. He was a lifelong learner, as he advised others to be.

But looking at his life, I wondered if he was looking for the right things in the right places to find happiness. It’s true, you won’t find an apple on a tree if you don’t look for it, but you also have to look at an apple tree. My work reveals that happy people rely on four basic elements to improve their well-being: they engage in work that gives them a sense of accomplishment and serves others, they practice some form of faith , they invest in friendships and they spend time with family.

At work, Franklin excelled. Burns portrays Franklin as a man completely devoted to his job and to the public good. “Diligence is the mother of luck, and God gives all to industry,” Franklin wrote. “So plow deep while the lazy sleep, and you will have wheat to sell and keep.” Burns gives him an A+ in this pursuit.

As for his faith, Franklin wrote, “This is my creed… That the most acceptable service we render to [God] does good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life by respecting his conduct in this one. Yet, although Franklin simply called himself a “thorough deist” and claimed that he read the entire Bible at the age of 5, there is little evidence that he regularly spent much time in a practice. spiritual. On this dimension, Burns gives it a B+.

Friendship was of great importance to Franklin, and he writes extensively of his “Junto”, or club of Philadelphia gentlemen who met regularly to share ideas and support each other’s projects. Despite this, Burns gives her a C in friendship. The reason is that Franklin seems to have often treated his friendships instrumentally, for mutual benefit in their work. True happiness requires true friends, not just friends.

Finally, there was family, for which Burns gives Franklin an abyssal F. Apparently a chronically unfaithful husband, he traveled Europe without his wife for 15 of the last 17 years of his marriage, and did not return home for his wife’s death. , even though he knew it was imminent. He was estranged from his son William because of their differences regarding American independence. Even when William sought reconciliation, Burns notes, his father largely rebuffed him. As with so many endeavors, family life was never a priority for Franklin.

Ofranklin hen died in 1790 in Philadelphia, at least 20,000 people turned out for his funeral. He had brought much happiness into the lives of others, through his service, his writings, and his philosophy. Whether he himself achieved happiness is another matter. As with so many happiness teachers and advice givers, it’s probably better to do what they say than copy the way they live.

And indeed, that is precisely what Burns himself tried to do: follow Franklin’s incredible wisdom, if not his personal habits. (Burns describes himself primarily as a family man, which Franklin evidently was not.) for what is good for others and what gives him joy — and then doing it. I suspect Franklin wholeheartedly approves.

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