Ben Franklin’s Radical Theory of Happiness
Ken Burns grades the Founding Father’s pursuit of a good life.
“How to Build a Life” is 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.
Most of the happiness scholars I cite in this column are living and active, because the scientific study of human happiness, relying as it does 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 topic was of particular interest to American Enlightenment thinkers of the late 18th century. Most famously, Thomas Jefferson declared the pursuit of happiness an unalienable right in the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson later explained that the Declaration, including this odd claim to happiness, was simply “an expression of the American mind.” The American mind of one of Jefferson’s fellow Founding Fathers was especially influential when it comes to the philosophy of happiness: that of Benjamin Franklin. This is according to the filmmaker Ken Burns, who also dubs him our nation’s first happiness professor. Burns has spent the past two years immersed in Franklin’s mind, to make a documentary on the man that is currently airing on PBS.
Franklin believed that everyone naturally seeks happiness. “The desire of happiness in general is so natural to us, that all the world are in pursuit of it,” he wrote in his memoir in a section titled “On True Happiness.” He dedicated his life to defining it for his peculiar American compatriots, and advising them on how they could work to get it. But like so many people who give advice for a living, it is not at all clear that he lived his own life in the happiest way. We can still learn a lot today by taking his counsel—and avoiding his errors.
Want to stay current with Arthur’s writing? Sign up to get an email every time a new column comes out.
What did 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 in American culture: individualistic in the focus on the self, yet communitarian in the reliance on a cooperative marketplace. Further, 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 point of view.
Particularly radical was Franklin’s idea about who could pursue happiness in this way. In Europe at the time, mainly aristocratic men with means would have been able to pursue lifelong learning in a formal sense. Franklin rejected this. He believed that “this pursuit was not the province of the upper classes,” Burns told me, “but rather for everyone, from the wealthy to the masses.” Burns hastened to add that this idea was nowhere near expansive enough in Franklin’s time—Franklin himself had slaves in his household, and equal rights for women were still far off—but this philosophy set the unique American aspiration in motion.
I believe America could benefit from recommitting to this foundational conception of happiness today. We need a society built around the belief that we can all learn and grow throughout our lives—and the humility to recognize that none of us has perfect knowledge, that a good deal of learning is always yet to come. This requires a true marketplace of ideas where iron sharpens iron, not uncompromising patrols in business, academia, and social media on the lookout for wrong-think. And we must work joyfully to make these ideals available to all people, with no exceptions.
Franklin himself searched endlessly for the happiness he wrote about. For Burns, this is what set Franklin apart from the other Founders, literally as well as philosophically. He was the “least static of them, a moving object his entire life,” Burns said. The documentary depicts a peripatetic man seemingly incapable of contentment in his growing worldly success, always inventing, trying new things, and traveling the world. He was a lifelong learner, as he counseled others to be.
But in looking at his life, I had to wonder if he was searching for the right things in the right places to find happiness. It’s true, you won’t find an apple on a tree unless you look for it—but you also have to be looking at an apple tree. My work finds that happy people rely on four building blocks to boost their well-being: They engage in work that gives them a sense of accomplishment and that serves others, they practice some form of faith, they invest in friendships, and they spend time with family.
In work, Franklin excelled. Burns depicts Franklin as a man completely devoted to his work and the public good. “Diligence is the mother of good luck, and God gives all things to industry,” Franklin wrote. “Then plough deep while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.” Burns gives him an A+ in this pursuit.
As to his faith, Franklin wrote, “Here is my creed … That the most acceptable service we render to [God] is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.” Yet, although Franklin called himself simply a “thorough deist” and claimed that he had read the entire Bible by the time he was 5 years old, there is little evidence he regularly spent much time in any spiritual practice. On this dimension, Burns gives him a B+.
Friendship was of great importance to Franklin, and he writes in detail about his “Junto,” or club of Philadelphia gentlemen who met regularly to share ideas and support one another’s projects. Despite this, Burns gives him 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 real friends, not just deal friends.
Finally, there was family, for which Burns gives Franklin an abysmal F. Seemingly a chronically unfaithful husband, he traveled in Europe without his wife for 15 of the last 17 years of his marriage, and didn’t make it home for his wife’s death, even though he knew it was imminent. He was estranged from his son William over their differences regarding American independence. Even when William sought reconciliation, Burns notes, his father largely rebuffed him. As with so many strivers, family life was never a priority for Franklin.
When Franklin died in 1790 in Philadelphia, at least 20,000 people turned out for his funeral. He had brought a great deal of happiness to the lives of others, through his service, writing, and philosophy. Whether he himself had achieved happiness is another matter. As with so many happiness professors and advice-givers, it is probably better to do what they say than to copy how they live.
And indeed, that is precisely what Burns himself has tried to do: follow Franklin’s incredible wisdom, if not his personal habits. (Burns describes himself as, before all, a family man, which Franklin was obviously not.) When I asked Burns how studying Franklin has improved his life, he told me he tries more than ever to be his own person, to always look within for what is good for others and what gives him joy—and then to do it. I suspect Franklin would approve wholeheartedly.