Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “What Makes Your Brain Happy (And Why You Should Do the Opposite)” by David Di Salvo

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With one of the best titles in modern nonfiction, What Makes Your Brain Happy (And Why You Should Do the Opposite) delivers on its promise of surprising, delightful–even humorous–insight. In it, author David Di Salvo investigates the many and varied ways our minds trick us into making poor decisions.

Read it to increase your self-awareness and to stop falling into the same traps, time and time again. Oh, and read it to reassure yourself that you’re not the only one who has done so.

Key Takeaways

  • This book investigates the cognitive biases and misconceptions that often influence our decision-making and behavior. It offers strategies for overcoming these biases and making more informed choices that lead to greater happiness and success.
  • DiSalvo’s overall point: Rational thinking often eludes us. We must be aware of our shortcomings in this area in order to at least sometimes avoid harmful consequences of our illogical thinking.
  • Beware of your innate need for certainty: sometimes, it might cause you to jump to conclusions. Humans crave certainty. There is a distinct, physical, chemical pleasure response from coming up with a reason or an explanation. This leads to all kinds of false conclusions. 
  • Beware of any impulse to attach meaning to coincidence. People are prone to doing so, making causal inferences from scant information. 
  • Beware of your innate need for control: A driving force of our actions and thoughts is our desire too feel we have agency, even when we don’t. Know when and when not to let go of the reigns. 
  • Beware of your innate loss aversion. We try to avoid loss at all costs, even over gaining something new that might outweigh that loss. Get comfortable with loss and risk; it’s not always a bad thing.
  • Beware of your innate confirmation bias. We give undue weight and even seek out confirming evidence for things we already believe. 
  • Know what your motivation style is. Some people are motivated by achievement and some are motivated by enjoyment. Achievement-motivated people presented by a word puzzle characterized by researchers as “fun” didn’t do as well as when characterized as “a challenge.” The opposite was true of enjoyment motivated individuals. So, it’s important to know your own motivators.
  • Don’t overestimate your self-control! Smokers who were trying to quit were randomly characterized by researchers as having high or low self-control as compared with the norm. When tempted later, the latter group succeeded more often in resisting the cigarette, because they didn’t expect themselves to control themselves when faced with temptation; instead, they changed their environments to set them up for success.
  • Beware of your natural competitiveness. It can be a good thing, but don’t let marketers (like those on Ebay!) create a false or unhelpful desire to win. Know that the hunt is often more exciting than the capture.
  • Beware of your unquenchable desire for more. Your brain is programmed to always want and seek the next great thing. The actual acquiring of it is often a letdown.
  • Beware of habituation, which causes you to take good things for granted. This happens in relationships, but also with large purchases such as a new car.
  • Don’t confuse wanting and liking–these are two very different things. They even activate different parts of the brain. Things you want aren’t always the things that make you feel good and give you pleasure.
  • Outsource carefully. Sometimes, it’s healthy and helpful to leave decisions to other people, or to go along with what’s most popular. It helps us conserve mental energy in a highly complex society. However, don’t outsource the stuff that most matters to you.
  • Beware of your visual and other sensory biases. We are unduly affected by seeing objects that seem to confirm something is true that we already believe is true. An example is when someone who’s trying to persuade people in a meeting about the need to improve air quality lifts “… three massive bound documents and drops them with a thud on the lectern.” No matter that no explanation of the volumes is given–we believe the documents contain evidence of their statements. We also inexplicably associate warm things with warm feelings and cold things with cold feelings unconsciously.
  • Beware of overly simple messages. The easier to understand that a concept is, the more likely it is to be remembered and accepted. Watch out for this; it’s how propaganda usually works.
  • Don’t accept nominal (face) value over real value. For example, a two percent raise in an economy that has experienced four percent inflation is actually a loss.
  • Be on the lookout for unhelpful regret. While it’s normal to always question what would’ve happened if (fill in the blank), you never truly know what would have happened in any given hypothetical future.
  • Beware of impulsiveness. It’s not your friend. The best way to overcome impulsiveness is distraction (even chimps do this!). 
  • Beware of overly hyping your own abilities. In one study people who asked themselves if they could accomplish a challenging task did better than those who told themselves they could.
  • Beware of your biases. The feeling of being right isn’t the same as being right! Question your own biases or possible biases relentlessly.
  • Beware of your confidence in your ability to predict the future. In general, people are much worse at this than they expect or believe themselves to be.
  • Beware of guiding metaphors and other fancy word games. Metaphors are powerful convincers because they create a lens through which the rest of the argument (both sides) is viewed–and sometimes that lens skews the issue. Also, word priming greatly affects our perceptions. In one study most people mistook the smell of roses for chili peppers simply because the bag they were in was named “chili peppers.” Repetition is also a hugely convincing verbal style and all of us believe at least some of what we are repeatedly told.
  • Make tangible goals. Engage social pressure to keep you accountable, if helpful.
  • Don’t rely on your own memory. Have a healthy degree of humility about how accurate you recall past events. For a variety of reasons, memory is often much less accurate than we realize.
  • When making decisions, slow down. Be aware of the influence of pre-existing beliefs. Check the availability of all information.
  • Get fast feedback—this helps you accomplish more than any other factor. Ask for it. Create it. 
  • Make checklists and use them. 

About the Author

David DiSalvo is an American science writer and author known for his books and articles that bridge the gap between science and everyday life. His writing explores various topics related to psychology, neuroscience, and behavior, offering practical insights and strategies for personal growth and well-being. He has a talent for making complex scientific concepts accessible to a general audience and applying them to everyday life situations.

DiSalvo’s writing style is engaging and thought-provoking, encouraging readers to think critically and consider the implications of scientific findings in their own lives. His work has gained recognition for its blend of scientific rigor, practicality, and relatibility.


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