Thursday, June 19, 2014

6 non-fiction books that changed my life

Throughout my life I have read plenty of non-fiction books that changed the way I think about everything. Most of them are based on scientific research, although many ideas are just theories in need for more testing. Your parents, teachers, friends and even politicians taught you many false beliefs. By changing them to something more scientific, you will experience much less cognitive dissonance, which is the mental stress you experience when reality doesn't match your beliefs. Your mind will be more at peace.

The effects of my reading so far have been far-reaching:
  • Reading a blog about financial freedom helped me cope with my health diagnosis.
  • Being honest and vulnerable is great not only for your personal life, but your professional life as well. For example, your colleagues will respect you more if you don't hesitate to admit a mistake.
  • Reading economic theories made me adjust my moral values and philosophy; see for example this blog post.
I'm not saying that these books contain the ultimate answers, but by reading them I have become slightly less wrong about everything.
Every step of the way I was wrong. About everything. All throughout my life, I was flat-out wrong about myself, others, society, culture, the world, the universe, everything. And I hope that will continue to be the case for the rest of my life.
There's that famous Michael Jordan quote about failing over and over and over again, and that’s why he succeeds. Well, I am always wrong about everything, and that's why my life improves.

Mark Manson in Why I’m Wrong About Everything (And So Are You)
If you are a fan of political correctness, many of these books will disappoint you. Reality doesn't care about offending someone; reality just is. For each book I tried to list one idea that stuck with me the most from the book.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt

This is my number one book that I have read about 5 times over the years. Whenever I'm facing a big decision like choosing a place to live or a job, I consult the book to see how it will affect my happiness. Happiness comes mostly from other people and if you want to be happier by means of money, buy experiences, spend it on others or don't spend it.

The book looks at different philosophies through the lens of science and how they affect happiness. It turns out that a large part of the Greek or Buddhist philosophies survived scientific tests. The book also tells a lot of fascinating results in psychology, not necessarily related to happiness.

One idea: Suppose there are two people, one has just won one million dollars in lottery and the other has just become quadriplegic, so he can't move from his neck down. Who will be happier one year from now? Surprisingly, they will be on about the same level. Our minds are very adaptive and they get used to new situations quickly.

Models: Attract Women Through Honesty, by Mark Manson

Even though this is a book about women, it had big effect on other aspects of my life as well. If you ignore the parts specifically about women, it reads as an excellent lifestyle guide. Better relationships and friendships are then by-products of improved lifestyle and behaviour and they seem almost effortless. The book also taught me how to be more assertive, expressive and confident.

A large part of the book is devoted to vulnerability and honesty which are two necessary qualities for stable relationships. Being vulnerable doesn't mean showing weakness, it signals inner strength and is therefore very manly (here is an excerpt of the book about vulnerability).

One idea: Polarization – don't be afraid to admit that you have listened to Britney Spears' song Toxic more times than appropriate 10 minutes into a conversation (alright, alright, that's me!). This will push away some people very quickly, but you will also find the ones you like quicker.

P.S. Mark Manson has an awesome blog (gender-neutral these days), where he writes about everything life-related often backed up by research in psychology. He's the guy I cited in the beginning of this post.

Financial Freedom through Badassity, by Mr Money Mustache

I'm cheating a bit here, since this is not a book but a blog. Before reading it, I used to save about 20% of my income but now it's up to 50% even with a lot of travelling. And if you save 50%, you can retire in 17 years. You will also become happier by spending less and saving more. Retiring early doesn't mean that you stop working, you can work for less or for free (volunteering).

If you are interested in how it can be done, go to the "start here" menu item or read my favourite post.

One idea: Nothing beats the stock market when it comes to long term returns. Stock market is volatile and sometimes you gain 0% in 10 years, but over 25-30 years the yields are better than for any other form of investment.

Is there anything good about men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, by Roy Baumeister

After reading this book I understand myself and other men much better. It explains why evolution made us behave the way we do. The book also debunks most of the myths that modern (third-wave) feminism is built on.

There are two main differences between the two genders: nature rolls the dice more with men and different genders have different motivations. For example, men and women have similar IQ on average, but men are overrepresented among people with high IQ as well as among people with low IQ. Men also have different motivations, like willingness to take big risks. Cultures have been exploiting this – big risks often led to great results but many men have died while taking risks, or became very poor and homeless.

One idea: I used to think that women are more social than men. If being social is good, why hasn't evolution made men as social as women? Evolution actually did make men social but in a different sense. Women prefer few intimate one-on-one relationships while men prefer plenty of shallow relationships.

P.S. You can read an invited address that Baumeister gave at a meeting of the American Psychological Association. The book expands on the topics in the talk.

Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman

I like to think about capitalism using a sharp knife metaphor. So far we haven't found a better tool for cutting food than knives. Their greatest strength, sharpness, can also lead to injuries. This book talks about why capitalism is a sharp tool and how to avoid injuries. It is very old and economics has made a lot of progress since then, but I still like it a lot for how it changed my world view and moral values.

Capitalism and high levels of freedom don't mean that there is no welfare. The Economist recently wrote: "When it comes to choice, Milton Friedman would be more at home in Stockholm than in Washington, DC." Historically, Sweden has been very free and capitalist. Milton Friedman was also a proponent of negative income tax, a very simple welfare program that is more efficient than what most countries have now.

One idea: Government should be organized on multiple levels. If possible, a government function should be done at the lowest level. It's easier for you to influence a local politician and if you don't like it, you can move 10 km to another town. Things that require a lot of coordination or are inefficient on a local level, like the military or taxing pollution, need to be done at the highest levels.

P.S. Milton Friedman has brilliant rhetoric skills. Even if you don't like freedom or capitalism, I suggest watching some of his videos on YouTube.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely

This book saved me a lot of money. It explains many of the psychological tricks that marketers are trying to play on us. Stay cautious every time you see the word free or there are too many options given to you.

Experiences are affected by our expectations. A fancy meal eaten in McDonald's will appear tasteless while the same meal eaten in a fancy restaurant will appear excellent. Similar thing is true for many things ranging from music to pills, so you can improve your perception by increasing your expectations.

One idea: Sellers are trying to trick you by having expensive items that no one buys. Suppose a restaurant has meals costing between 10 to 20 euros. Now suppose they add a couple of meals that cost 30 euros. Nobody will ever order those, but people will spend more now than before.

Other great books

The following books were not that life-changing but they are still great. Perhaps they would be life-changing if I read them 5 years earlier.


  1. I happened upon your blog while looking up some evopsych topic. You and I have remarkably similar interests and worldviews. So I want to recommend David D. Friedman's (Milton Friedman's son) book "The Machinery of Freedom". I have no reason to recommend it or even write this comment at all except for the fact that I was so taken aback by how similar our interests are - and based on that, I'm fairly certain you will at least thoroughly enjoy the book... since I consider it the best book I've ever read.

    1. I really like David, I've read many things he wrote and listened to his talks, but I'm skeptical about anarcho-capitalism. My take is the same as that of Scott Alexander: "... I am delighted by this fascinating and elegant system and would very much like to see it tried somewhere very far away from me." See