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You Have To Catch Happiness Yourself

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. Benjamin Franklin

Eleven years ago I noticed an old, dull-colored, slim book in my mother-in-law’s cabinet. It was the autobiography of Ben Franklin.

I do find some characters from history interesting, especially people like Ben Franklin who influenced history profoundly…with his ideas, his inventions, his diplomacy, AND his character. He’s considered by many to be the grandfather of self-improvement and the father of the very American idea that we can better ourselves.

Evidently Benjamin Franklin started out in life in relative poverty with little education, and also with brash, rude, and arrogant behavior. So in his twenties he came up with a plan for changing himself.

Can we change? If so, how? That's an interesting topic. And…it so happened that at the time, one of my granddaughter’s had bitten an older girl and given a black-eye to a boy who troubled her. Her parents thought there might be some method of helping her adjust her behaviors and asked me for my thoughts. The idea we came up with was to adopt and adapt Ben’s plan for moral improvement.

But before we go there, here’s a taste of Ben’s writing. You can find the entire autobiography in PDF form online for free. Here’s a sample of Chapter 9.



T was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined.[66] While my care was employ'd in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrived the following method.

Ben chooses virtues that he’s encountered and narrows them down to 13 which he orders from easier to more challenging and in ways they can build on each other... temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, humility…to imitate Jesus and Socrates.

My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judg'd it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro' the thirteen….

Then Ben takes a blank book and makes pages with the first letter of each desired behavior, creates daily columns. He gives himself a black mark if he messes up on that behavior that day. He went through this weekly cycle with each of the 13 behaviors four times throughout the year. From my reading, it seems that he continued this plan at least until he was 79.

Ben gives himself prayers, proverbs, and inspirational quotes to help him hold the course. Ben also asks himself his intentions for the day and writes them down. As he proceeds on his plan, he is surprised that he is so full of faults, but takes satisfaction in seeing them diminish and some behaviors were much more difficult for him. And though this excerpt is lengthy, it’s worth the read particularly for those who have great difficulty changing some habit (it's comforting) and contains insight about how he felt he became influential with other people.

In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order….

My list of virtues contain'd at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show'd itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc'd me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix'd opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag'd in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos'd my opinions procur'd them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail'd with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

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And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points [bold added - please send this to a politician].

Now if we can imagine all the different points of view Franklin contended with during those revolutionary years, we owe a great debt to his moral perfection plan, particularly the humility habit, in bringing people together and getting things done.

My granddaughter agreed to try out Ben’s plan. Her four-item plan may not seem at first glance so bold and arduous, but I’ve found that when I try to work on them, they are definitely challenging and a pretty comprehensive plan for a life with good relationships.

1) Be kind

2) Be polite

3) Be respectful

4) Count to ten slowly when I’m mad

A line below the chart asked, “How did I do?” which encouraged reflection.

What is super interesting to me about this approach is NOTHING is ever explicitly mentioned about change. It’s solely a monitoring device.

Those acts of simply monitoring, noticing, keeping track of our intentions – when we are on and off track, is a super sneaky, clever way of changing ourselves.

It worked for my granddaughter. She IS kind, polite, respectful, and has had nary a problem with a wild temper. (Yes, I know I am biased; she probably isn’t perfect, but almost. She has most definitely never bitten anyone or given anyone a black-eye out of anger...though she is a fierce lacrosse player).

Here’s the point. We shouldn’t take these little structures, this idea of self-improvement too lightly or too cynically. Though many of us have difficult circumstances…some much more than others, there are some simple ways of moving ourselves forward toward becoming the people we want to be.

In 1727 Franklin formed what he called a Junto, a weekly mutual-improvement club made up of individuals with an array of interests and skills. These Ben Franklin circles still exist. The circles use Franklin’s 13 virtues to spark discussion about their own aspirations – who they want to be and what they want to contribute to the world (my husband and I belong to a compassion circle which has the aim of becoming more skillful in practicing compassion).

Having a “circle” of people, or a partner, rather than a calendar is another way of tracking and monitoring ourselves and also a sneaky, clever way to change. The social connections create an added powerful element (Alcoholic Anonymous research has found the practice of social connection to be extremely important in changing behavior).

Benjamin Franklin died on April 17th, 1790 at the age of eighty-four. He hoped that posterity would read his autobiography and find his ideas around self-improvement useful. He confesses in his autobiography that he fell far short of his ambition, but claimed he was a better and happier man for attempting it.

Most of us would like to be better in some way… and happier. We want our own children and our children’s children to be better and happier. And if all that stuff like calendars and circles seems like too much for us to attempt, we can start by using the two questions that Franklin asked himself every day.

In the morning: "What good shall I do this day?"

In the evening: "What good have I done this day?"

Franklin felt that ultimately we must take personal responsibility for becoming better, happier people. As he said, “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

Now why do I bring up this topic today? It is not time for sitting down and crafting a new year of resolutions. No, but it is a little over the year's half way point. How are those January resolutions coming along? Time to do a little monitoring? Maybe it's the perfect time for some inspiration.

How might we journey together to The Good Life by using Ben Franklin’s example of self-improvement as inspiration?


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