Benjamin Franklin on Happiness

My invitation to you this month is to find, in one word, the answer to the question, “Why are you not more effective?” I’d like to share a little more about the life and philosophies of our friend and mentor Benjamin Franklin and ask you to consider if these details inspire a new word for you.

A life of purpose and mindful practice

The outcome of an industrious life spent in the cultivation of virtue, self-improvement and service is happiness. Happiness is the harvest of a life spent for others; it is where all our preparation, work and industry turn our actions to felicity and joy for others and self. 

Benjamin Franklin knew well that when industry and frugality fill the otherwise seemingly empty or mundane days on the calendar, we are actually filling life’s bag with accomplishment. Or as he was fond of saying: It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright. 

Work and industry are also natural and powerful implements found in the toolkit against despair and depression:

…when men are employed they are best contented; for on the days they worked they were good natured and cheerful, and, with the consciousness of having done a good day’s work, they spent the evening jollily; but on our idle days they were mutinous and quarrelsome, finding fault with their pork, the bread, etc. and in continual ill-humor…

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Franklin lived what he preached regarding hard work. An observer noted this in the young upstart and his new printing business, 

For the industry of that Franklin, says he, is superior to any thing I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed. 

Dr. Absolom Baird

As further proof of his unquenchable industry, I share a partial list of his vocations, accomplishments, and discoveries over the course of several decades:

Original Postmaster

Founder of a hospital

Founder of our country’s first public library

Fire department founder

Insurance company founder

Academy and university founder. 

Finally his journey culminated as a political leader, statesman and ambassador — not to mention his famous demonstration to prove the connection between lightning and electricity, and the resulting invention of the lightning rod.

Franklin believed his role was to use his gifts to create, discover, and benefit others and his community at large — and that shows in the list above. Franklin refused to employ patents for remuneration from his creations and inventions as a further testament to the conviction that his work should benefit all whenever possible. 

A willingness to change

At the pinnacle of his economic success, he exhibited nobleness, humility, and magnanimity. When the Reverend Whitefield came calling for contributions to build an orphanage in Georgia, Franklin instead suggested it should be built in Philadelphia. When Whitfield refused his suggestion, Franklin reluctantly accepted an invitation to attend the preacher’s sermon. 

Franklin related the following about his change of heart: 

…I perceived he (Whitefield) intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded, I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably, that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.

Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

But what accounts for Franklin’s happiness?

Was it his inventions, financial success, or amiable nature that made him happy? Note the headstone Franklin put in place for his parents many years after their passing and who lived much more modest lives than he, yet no less plentiful and happy. He knew they were responsible for inspiring his success. He then honored them with this marble stone in recognition of their virtues that inspired him. 

Josiah Franklin,
Abiah his wife,
lie here interred.
They lived lovingly together in wedlock
fifty-five years.
Without an estate, or any gainful employment,
By constant labor and industry,
with God’s blessing,
They maintained a large family
and brought up thirteen children
and seven grandchildren
From this instance, reader,
Be encouraged to diligence in thy calling,
And distrust not Providence.
He was a pious and prudent man;
She, a discreet and virtuous woman.
Their youngest son,
In filial regard to their memory,
Places this stone. 

The connection between a life of industry and a happy life was instilled in Franklin from the very start, and he never took that lesson for granted.

Industry coupled with charity is a true legacy.

What value can we, as a country, attach to his natural love of helping his community?  We are citizens ever indebted to him.

In the final season of Franklin’s life, he participated in the creation of the organic and enduring documents of the founding of The United States of America. Franklin served on the committee with Jefferson in the creation of the Declaration of Independence, and he was the sage who kept the Constitutional Convention grounded and moving forward to fruition in 1787. He led many great patriots to declare independence from the greatest power on earth at that time and created the longest surviving written constitution in recorded history. 

This country is perhaps the greatest propagator for spreading happiness the world has ever known, and Franklin’s contribution to its creation is undeniable. The onus is on us to treasure that gift, to recognize the wisdom of his example, and to trust that the outcome of getting to work and giving freely is truly happiness.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. ed. Charles W. Eliot. Vol. 1. Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1960.  

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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