Insights from Adam Smith: Why We Hate Misfortune, Even if It’s Good for Us

Adam Smith is full of good quotes. But his longer metaphors are even better.

If there is one thing in life that sustains people through tough times, it is the understanding that tough times stretch us and make us stronger.

But that doesn’t keep the immediate moment from hurting. Even if we know that adversity leads to growth, we still would rather avoid adversity.

Speaking of the emotion of justified anger, which has a place in the long run but immediately makes us and those who witness it in public uncomfortable, Smith says, “It is the remote effects of these passions which are agreeable; the immediate effects are mischief to the person against whom they are directed. But it is the immediate, and not the remote effects of objects which render them agreeable or disagreeable to the imagination…Trophies of the instruments of music or of agriculture, imitated in painting or in stucco, make a common and an agreeable ornament of our halls and dining-rooms. A trophy of the same kind, composed of the instruments of surgery, of dissecting and amputation-knives, of saws for cutting the bones, of trepanning instruments, etc. would be absurd and shocking. Instruments of surgery, however, are always more finely polished, and generally more nicely adapted to the purposes for which they are intended, than instruments of agriculture. The remote effects of them too, the health of the patient, is agreeable; yet as the immediate effect of them is pain and suffering, the sight of them always displeases us.”

He then adds this point:

“The ancient stoics were of opinion, that as the world was governed by the all-ruling providence of a wise, powerful, and good God, every single event ought to be regarded, as making a necessary part of the plan of the universe, and as tending to promote the general order and happiness of the whole: that the vices and follies of mankind, therefore, made as necessary a part of this plan as their wisdom or their virtue; and by that eternal art which educes good from ill, were made to tend equally to the prosperity and perfection of the great system of nature. No speculation of this kind, however, how deeply soever it might be rooted in the mind, could diminish our natural abhorrence for vice, whose immediate effects are so destructive, and whose remote ones are too distant to be traced by the imagination.”

The comfortable and natural tendency is for us to eschew anything that forces us to encounter immediate discomfort. That is why it is so hard to exercise, to wake up early, or to break bad habits.

It is then the mark of personal progress to develop to ability to put off our natural and gut responses in order to view the long-term consequences of what we see in life. Such perspective waters the seeds of grit (a strong predictor of success), happiness even amidst hardship, and of vitality. Such is the path of those whom we would call “godly” in their demeanor. It is the kind of perspective to which Christians aspire.

It appears that the Stoics (and Smith) are on to something here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s