Summary: (3/5 stars) My friend, Paul, recommended this book to me as something I might be interested in and he was not wrong. This book is chock-full of good information on psychology and sociology that is useful to know. But for some reason the presentation of that information just did not grab me, hence the relatively low rating of this book.
It’s certainly not a perfect book in terms of content, though. I am skeptical of several of his scientific claims and there are some significant philosophical problems with his arguments. I also think the “ancient wisdom” thing is just a schtick to sell books and not actually a functioning hypothesis.
In spite of these problems he makes a lot of thought-provoking arguments that are worthy of consideration if not application in one’s own life. I really appreciate his support of meditation, positive psychology, and cognitive therapy. So, overall, I guess it’s really a pretty interesting book… but for some reason I just did not love it.
SPOILER WARNING: From this point forward, I’m going to discuss this book without any concern about spoilers. So, if you don’t like spoilers you should stop reading now.
The approach this book takes is to look at items of “ancient wisdom” from around the world and look at how they reveal insights that are backed up by our current scientific understanding. Each chapter takes a specific idea such as virtue, fulfillment, or adversity and looks at what people like Buddha, Jesus, or Benjamin Franklin (He’s ancient, right?) had to say about those things and then presents the scientific evidence that backs up particular aspects of those insights.
The problem with the book is that I think he oversells some of these ideas. For instance, he writes as if the evidence in support of meditation is broad and well-established. It isn’t. He also talks about attachment psychology as if it is settled and indisputable. I think it’s a bit more nuanced than he presents here. But it’s a short book and it’s written for a non-academic audience, so I think these issues are pretty forgivable, especially because he does make some effort at points to note that not everything is settled or that more study is needed. Just be aware that he’s absolutely BLAZING through a huge sea of academic text on many of these issues.
I also think his brief forays into philosophical thought give virtue ethics short shrift. I’m sure my sociology friends would have a similar complaint about his points on sociology. But he does admit that he’s not a philosopher per se (He studied philosophy in undergrad, but as a professional studies the psychology of morality.) nor is he a sociologist. He tries to confine his discussion to the elements of psychology.
My third complaint is that the “ancient wisdom” thing strikes me as just a schtick to sell books and not actually a functioning hypothesis in the way he describes it in the book. But, once again, this is not actually an academic text. The “ancient wisdom” aspect provides the book with a nice, clear, simple structure and a meaningful way to discuss and describe the scientific points he wants to bring forward.
Therefore, in spite of these complaints, I think he makes a lot of thought-provoking arguments that are worthy of consideration if not application in one’s own life. I really appreciate his discussion and general support for meditation, positive psychology, and cognitive therapy.