How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

Russ Roberts

Adam Smith is credited with being the founder of modern economics and many have heard of his book The Wealth of Nations which was published in 1776. But Smith also wrote the little-known book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments which was published in 1759. The author is an economist who had read The Wealth of Nations but had never seriously considered reading The Theory of Moral Sentiments until he was asked to interview a friend about the book. When Roberts read the book he was surprised to be captured by Smith’s thoughts. Smith’s thinking had such an influence on him that he wanted others to have the same experience without having to read the original text.

I found How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life to be engaging due to its insights and to the consistency of human nature over time. Smith explains how we learn how to behave from observing others and from how others react to what we do. In our day, another way to expand our experience is through reading literature and biographies. The following words of Russ Roberts and of Adam Smith are presented as an introduction to the experience of reading the book.


“The book changed the way I looked at people, and maybe more important, it changed the way I looked at myself…. Trying to understand your neighbor and, in turn, yourself really doesn’t get old.”Mirror_baby

“What the media and the public expect from economists is what we are probably worst at – giving precise answers to questions that presume the economy is like some giant clock or machine whose innards can be mastered and then manipulated with some degree of precision…. Economics is actually quite useful – it’s just not so useful for the things people typically expect from it…. The real point is that economics is about something more important than money. Economics helps you understand that money isn’t the only thing that matters in life. Economics teaches you that making a choice means giving up something. And economics can help you appreciate complexity and how seemingly unrelated actions and people can become entangled…. Life is all about choices. Getting the most out of life means choosing wisely and well.”


“If you want to get better at this thing called life, you have to pay attention. When you pay attention, you can remember what really matters, what is real and enduring, versus what is false and fleeting. Thinking of an impartial spectator can help you know yourself and help you become a better boss, a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend. Thinking of an impartial spectator can help you interact with actual, real-life spectators and change how they think of you. Smith argues that it’s more than a pleasant side benefit that comes from paying attention to how your behavior is perceived. It can actually lead to serenity, tranquility, and happiness.”

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“Self-deception can be more comforting than self-knowledge. We like to fool ourselves.”

“Humility is an acquired taste. Once you come to like it, it’s a dish best served hot. It’s amazing how liberating it can be to say ‘I don’t know.’”

Two different models are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behavior; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer.

“The virtues of courtesy and kindness and thoughtfulness and compassion and honor and integrity are the virtues we celebrate and applaud. There’s no way to legislate these kinds of behavior. They are loose, vague, and indeterminate. They fall under the category of beneficence. No statute could be written to enforce them or to punish their opposites. They are best encouraged – and their opposites discouraged – by human interaction. These are the traits that make life good and easy. A world without them would be much less pleasant.”


“Through our actions, we create the norms and rules of what is attractive and what is unattractive.”

“I like the Talmud’s attitude toward transforming the world: ‘It is not up to you to finish the work. But you are not free to desist from it.’ You alone make very little difference. But you make your contribution. That’s good for you. And when you join in with others, you make all the difference.”