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How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

By Russ Roberts
10-minute read
Audio available
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life revives the work of the influential economist and philosopher, Adam Smith – especially his groundbreaking book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The author applies Smith’s ideas to modern life, showing us how to become happier and more virtuous people, improving our relationships with those around us and ultimately even changing the world!

  • Anyone who wants to find a path to fulfillment and happiness
  • Anyone who wants to apply classic philosophy to their own life
  • Anyone who thinks Adam Smith was just an economist

Russ Roberts is a research fellow at Stanford and author of several books on economics including The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity. He hosts the award-winning weekly podcast EconTalk.

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How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

By Russ Roberts
  • Read in 10 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 6 key ideas
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts
Synopsis

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life revives the work of the influential economist and philosopher, Adam Smith – especially his groundbreaking book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The author applies Smith’s ideas to modern life, showing us how to become happier and more virtuous people, improving our relationships with those around us and ultimately even changing the world!

Key idea 1 of 6

Humans are capable of behaving morally despite being inherently selfish.

Imagine learning that an earthquake in a distant land caused millions to die. And now, imagine learning that your little finger needs to be amputated due to a severe infection. Which scenario would bother you more, the deaths of millions or the loss of your pinkie? Well, although you might want to tell yourself otherwise, you’d probably care more about the amputation of your little finger than the death of a stranger.

Philosopher Adam Smith used the term self love to describe this tendency. Self love refers to the notion that humans are inherently selfish, that we can’t help placing our lives and interests above everything else.

Although self love is entrenched in human nature, Smith claimed it had limits. After all, would you actually sacrifice other people’s lives just to save your little finger?

Of course not! As Smith argued, anyone with a conscience would consider that deal unacceptable. And yet, if we’re fundamentally selfish, why are there such clear limits to our self-interest?

According to Smith, our conscience functions like an internal observer who observes and judges our actions, thus guiding us and discouraging immoral behavior. In other words, this observer pushes us to act honorably.

So if you want to purposefully improve your behavior, you’ll pay close attention to this spectator; that way you’ll see where and how your actions are unsatisfactory.

For instance, when the author started doing podcasts, he had a habit of talking way too much and not letting his guests speak. But after listeners complained about his excessive chattiness, the author tapped into his internal observer and listened to the show from another person’s perspective. And when he realized that the listeners were right, he changed his attitude and made an effort to give his guests more time. He ultimately improved his podcast because he listened to his internal observer.

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