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Three Life Lessons from a Great Sage of Psychology

David Myers on the curiosities and marvels of the human mind.

Key points

  • David Myers is one of the great sages of the field of psychology.
  • In his new book, he shares his wisdom in 40 tasting menu-sized chapters.
  • Here are insights on habit formation, self-serving biases, and the prevalence of failure.

David Myers is perhaps the wisest living psychologist. In his new book, How Do We Know Ourselves? Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind, he shares some of his wisdom.

About 40 years ago, when I was a young assistant professor, my colleague Steve West showed me a copy of a new social psychology textbook and said it was the best-written textbook he’d ever seen. This statement surprised me because West is a very rigorous scholar who is not very easy to impress. I took a look and found that Myers’ text was indeed beautifully written, elucidating complex concepts in vivid and engaging ways, and carefully explaining why all the diverse findings of the field mattered to students’ lives. Myers’ text became the field’s bestseller and was followed by an equally eloquent general psychology textbook, which likewise became a leader. His general psychology text has now sold over 8 million copies, and Myers has no doubt raked in immense royalties from his books.

Yet, according to an editor who worked with him, Myers continues to live humbly and to give away his royalties to teaching and charity (indeed, I just discovered that all the royalties from his introductory psychology texts and popular press books are given away by The David and Carol Myers Foundation). Meanwhile, Myers also became one of the pioneers in the emerging field of positive psychology, which focuses not on pathology and social disorder but on resilience, life satisfaction, finding meaning in life, and other human strengths (e.g., Myers, 2000; Myers & Diener, 1996).

Myers’ writing is often humorous, but his sense of humor is wise and gentle rather than sarcastic and biting. His wisdom, humility, and ability to help us laugh at our own limitations are on full display in his latest work. The book contains 40 brief and thought-provoking essays about research findings Myers believes contain insights general readers should know about. The chapters are arranged into three sections—one about the self, one about our relationships, and one about the broader social environment.

Composite of Myers photo and cover of his new book, reviewed here, D.T. Kenrick, used with permission.
David Myers and his new book.
Source: Composite of Myers photo and cover of his new book, reviewed here, D.T. Kenrick, used with permission.

Here are three things I found especially thought-provoking:

  1. How to form lasting habits. Myers’ chapter “making New Year’s resolutions that last” is as concise and practical a summary of the behavioral change literature as you’ll find. He lists six research-based steps for setting and achieving goals. One of the studies he cites, by Phillippa Lilly and colleagues, found that it takes over 60 days of repetition for a new habit (such as eating fruit with lunch or daily jogging) to become automatic. After a self-indulgent start to the holiday season, I set the goal of not drinking more than one beer or glass of vino for the next two months. I’ve started giving myself an “X” on my calendar every day I meet that goal, thereby following his advice to monitor and record my progress (I’m also now following his advice to announce the goal to others, to keep me honest).
  2. Self-serving biases. Myers has, since his first social psychology book, been a master of documenting the extent and prevalence of our tendency to view ourselves in a positive light. A few facts he notes: 90 percent of business managers rate their performance as above average, and 90 percent of college instructors likewise believe they are better than the average teacher. On the other side, only 1 percent of people rate their job performance as below average, but 89 percent of people rate themselves as above the 74th percentile on ethics. In a College Board survey of 839,000 high school seniors, less than half of 1 percent rated themselves as below average in social skills, while 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent, and fully 25 percent rated themselves in the top 1 percent.
  3. The prevalence of failure. On the topic of failure and flourishing, Myers addresses an issue most people don’t talk about, how frequently most of us fail to meet our goals. He himself had a trade book rejected by 36 publishers; then when accepted, it didn’t sell well. He also discloses his rejected manuscripts and bad teaching evaluations. Typically, he ends the chapter with some practical advice: First: Welcome criticism. He describes how the highly successful psychologist Benton Underwood dealt with rejected manuscripts: one day of depression, one day of utter contempt for the editor and his evil accomplices, one day decrying the conspiracy against publishing the Truth, one day considering a change of professions, then one day re-evaluating the manuscript in light of the reviews, concluding he was lucky it wasn’t published. Myers also cites an interesting Nature essay in which Melanie Stefan suggests scientists keep a resume of their failures instead of only advertising their successes (see also Zen and the Art of Embracing Rejection)

This book is not a grand attempt to unify the field of psychology using a simple idea or overarching set of principles. Instead, it is akin to a tasting menu, prepared by a Michelin chef, saving you the trouble of finding all the ingredients and preparing them to a level you would have a hard time ever reaching. If you’re thinking of buying a family member a cookbook as a holiday present, you might instead consider giving them Myers' book of insightful recipes for a more enlightened life (better yet, give them both, following another well-documented recipe for personal happiness).

References

Myers, D. G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American psychologist, 55(1), 56-67

Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. (1995). Who is happy? Psychological science, 6(1), 10-19.

Stefan, M. (2010). A CV of failures. Nature, 468, 467.

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