Carolyn Purnell on Ben Franklin’s 13 Tips for Happiness

from Purnell’s featured post on Apartment Therapy

Benjamin Franklin knew what was what when it came to mindful living. In addition to his more well-known scientific and political works, he wrote about cleanliness, order, finances, and domestic life, and indeed, it was his success in these areas that he considered the root to his happiness. When it comes to mindful living, some things don’t change, and the eighteenth century can still give us some words of wisdom.

In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the 79-year-old reflected on what it was that made him so successful, and one of his main pieces of advice was something that he called his set of moral virtues. These were the principles that he deemed most important to happiness, human relationships, and creativity. Here they are, in all their glory:

1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Even if his list of 13 doesn’t match your ideal list, there’s still plenty of good advice to be gleaned from Mr. Franklin here, and much of it resonates with other discussions we’ve had about mindful living.

But Franklin knew that forming a habit requires repetition and practice, and here’s where things get a little odd (but admirably diligent!): in order to internalize these virtues, Franklin decided that he would tackle them one at a time, only moving to the next virtue once he had perfected the one in question. He built a chart where he would mark his progress on each virtue, and he used black dots to note the faults that he had each day.

(Evidently, he had less of an issue with the latter virtues, with order coming in as the most difficult.)

This method might be too rigid for most of us to follow, but I thought it was worth sharing, since it’s a good reminder that, just like anything else, the attributes that we want to exhibit require exercise, conscientiousness, and practice.

I decided to take Franklin’s advice and came up with my own list of virtues, and while I don’t make little black dots each day or keep a rigorous tally of my successes and failures, I found the basic exercise to be illuminating about my values and habits. Plus, it served as a valuable diagnostic, illustrating the values that I need to work more on.

Franklin’s assessment of his exercise? “Though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”


Carolyn Purnell is a Jack Miller Center Postdoctoral Fellow with the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation at Illinois Institute of Technology. She is a freelance writer and photographer, as well as a lover of all things colorful and quirky. She grew up in Texas and settled in Chicago by way of L.A., England and Paris.