Adam Smith on Anxiety and Happiness

Adam Smith believed that there was a connection between happiness and anxiety. Smith mentions anxiety or being anxious on 63 different occasions in Sentiments and 16 times in The Wealth of Nations. While he also believed that the inverse of anxiety or anxiousness, comfort with one’s conditions through self-inspection, helps derive true happiness:

In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for. (Sentiments IV.I.10)

Smith would have used the term anxiety in much the same way we use it today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word anxiety dates to the 16th century and is rooted in the Latin word angere meaning “to choke, squeeze, or strangle.”

Smith called fear and anxiety “the great tormentors of the human breast” (Sentiments I.I.12). Being anxious would cause “agony” (Sentiments I.II.10). Anxiety was related to sympathy by affecting the impartial spectator. We cannot experience the actual pain of someone suffering, but through anxiety we suffer with them. However, the agony of anxiety should not be confused with pain brought firsthand through affliction.  Nor should pain experienced through the sensory nerves necessarily correlate with agony through anxiety. For instance, the most painful of diseases may not elicit sympathy through anxiety, especially if they are commonplace. However, “the most dangerous diseases, though accompanied with very little pain, excite the highest [level of anxiety] (Sentiments I.II.11).”

Anxiety could be attributable to variations in the level of subjective perceptions versus discoverable truths by your peers of your work product. For instance, the mathematician would be less anxious about being appreciated by the public because “success admits, either of clear demonstration or very satisfactory proof” that her theorems are correct. However, the artist would experience more anxiety about public opinion because there is not a clear right or wrong answer. (Sentiments III.I.25)

Not all forms of anxiety are socially acceptable. For instance, in Smith’s world it’s not okay to be anxious about receiving praise but it is okay to be anxious about receiving blame. 

To show much anxiety about praise, even for praise-worthy actions, is seldom a mark of great wisdom, but generally of some degree of weakness. But, in being anxious to avoid the shadow of blame or reproach, there may be no weakness, but frequently the most praise-worthy prudence. (Sentiments III.I.36)

Anxiety was also traded for approbation. Smith describes the plight of a poor man’s son who looks down on his father for having too small a house, no servants, no fancy gadgets, and for the otherwise little amount that he has in his possession. The poor man’s son thinks these things lead to satisfaction. However, when depression or disease strikes, one begins rethinking the role that material wellbeing and social status has with happiness:

Power and riches appear to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniences to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniences, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed then before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death.(Sentiments IV.I.8)

However, people still sought riches and power. Smith believes that “the pleasures of wealth and greatness…strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it” (Sentiments IV.I.9). We convince ourselves that the “beauty” afforded with riches and power outweighs the happiness that we give up to achieve it. Another way of thinking about the beauty is through the approbation associated with the wealth and power. For A. Smith, people trade happiness for approbation.

Though Smith considered anxiety and happiness to be related, they were not cardinal opposites. Being free of anxiety did not necessarily make one happy. However, the presence of anxiety made happiness unattainable. For instance, thinking about your ultimate demise made you anxious. People who are frequently exposed to death:

[F]ind it easier to turn away their thoughts from it altogether, to wrap themselves up in careless security and indifference, and to plunge themselves, for this purpose, into every sort of amusement and dissipation…to be exposed to continual, though less imminent danger, to be obliged to exert, for a long time, a degree of this effort, exhausts and depresses the mind, and renders it incapable of all happiness and enjoyment. (Sentiments V.I.6)

Smith is also saying that, in a way, your constitution for dealing with particularly stressful activities matters. For both happiness and misery:

[D]epended chiefly on the mind…. Though under great bodily pain, we might still enjoy a considerable share of happiness, if our reason and judgement maintained their superiority. We might entertain ourselves with the remembrance of past, and with the hopes of future pleasure; we might soften the rigour of our pains, by recollecting what it was which, even in this situation, we were under any necessity of suffering. That this was merely the bodily sensation, the pain of the present instant, which by itself could never be very great. That whatever agony we suffered from the dread of its continuance, was the effect of an opinion of the mind, which might be corrected by juster sentiments; by considering that, if our pains were violent, they would probably be of short duration; and that if they were of long continuance, they would probably be moderate, and admit of many intervals of ease; and that, at any rate, death was always at hand and within call to deliver us, which as, according to him, it put an end to all sensation, either of pain or pleasure, could not be regarded as an evil. When we are, said he, death is not; and when death is, we are not; death therefore can be nothing to us.

If the actual sensation of positive pain was in itself so little to be feared, that of pleasure was still less to be desired. Naturally the sensation of pleasure was much less pungent than that of pain. If, therefore, this last could take so very little from the happiness of a well-disposed mind, the other could add scarce any thing to it. When the body was free from pain and the mind from fear and anxiety, the superadded sensation of bodily pleasure could be of very little importance; and though it might diversify could not properly be said to increase the happiness of the situation. (Sentiments VII.II.59-60)

Anxiety would be more likely to be brought on by something that we believe is relevant, but is less important than something that is more easily achieved but very important. For instance, Smith believed that we could become much more anxious with how we are viewed by our peers than by “supplying all the necessities and conveniences of the body, which are always very easily supplied” (Sentiments VI.1.4).

Smith also believed that frugality reduced anxiety and increased happiness:

The man who lives within his income, is naturally contented [sic] with his situation, which, by continual, though small accumulations, is growing better and better every day. He is enabled gradually to relax, both in the rigour of his parsimony and in the severity of his application; and he feels with double satisfaction this gradual increase of ease and enjoyment, from having felt before the hardship which attended the want of them. He has no anxiety to change so comfortable a situation, and does not go in quest of new enterprises and adventures, which might endanger, but could not well increase, the secure tranquillity [sic] which he actually enjoys. If he enters into any new projects or enterprises, they are likely to be well concerted and well prepared. He can never be hurried or drove into them by any necessity, but has always time and leisure to deliberate soberly and coolly concerning what are likely to be their consequences. (Sentiments VI.I.13)

As the old proverb goes, “by sowing frugality, we reap liberty.” But more importantly, by living within our means we create a situation in which happiness can endure. As Smith says, “what can be added to the happiness of a man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?” (Sentiments I.III.7).