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William James - Psychology, Ethics, and SuccessWilliam James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success


William James (1842-1910)


American psychologist and philosopher.

Brother of the novelist, Henry James.


His most famous book is…

The Principles of Psychology (1890).


What did he say about psychology, ethics, and success?


1. Pragmatism

Anything is valid or right, if it:William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

  • is useful (produces results), or
  • satisfies a need or desire.

Truth and rightness are not based on your feelings but on:

  • the evidence available.
  • an evaluation of all relevant facts.

If the evidence for two ideas is the same, the one with the better consequences should be preferred.

James was a close friend of the founder of pragmatism, C.S. Peirce (pictured right above) .


2. Free will and happiness

You have free will to:

  • do what you want with your life
  • improve yourself by changing your attitudes (like James who overcame depression in his late 20’s).

So vital are:

  • self-belief. William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success
  • optimism.
  • love.

James was miserable in his first two careers as an artist and a doctor.

Then he found great happiness from:

  • writing and lecturing.
  • his wife, Alice (pictured right above).

 William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

3. Be true to yourself

 When they do things, the best people say to themselves:

'This is the real me'.


4. Self-esteem

This depends on your successes and expectations.

If your expectations exceed your ability (like being a pop star), you will:

  • be disappointed.
  • have lower self-esteem.

 William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

5. Make the most of yourself (particularly your soul)

Take every opportunity to do useful things again and again, until they;

  • become a habit.
  • are done automatically.

“Sow an action and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny”, he said.

Make the most of the three sides of your life:

 William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

a) material me 

  • your body.
  • home.
  • things you own.


b) social me William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

  • contact with people
  • what they think of you.
  • how you react to them.


c) spiritual me William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

Experiences beyond material things and people.

(like God, peace of mind and ethics).


The spiritual and social are more important than the material.

So don’t earn more money at the expense of your:

  • family and friends.
  • soul (by doing something wrong).

Success is dependent on:

  • making the right choices - 'will you or won't you?' is the key question.
  • avoiding “moral flabbiness” - don't be blind to other people's needs and situation.


6. Learn

Learning requires:William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success


a) self-motivation 

Wanting to learn and improve yourself.

 William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

b) thinking 

Forming your own views after:

  • discussing them with other people.
  • considering all relevant facts.


c) attention 

Focusing on useful knowledge.


d) association William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

Linking one object or idea with another (e.g. cup and saucer).


e) memory 

Remembering relevant facts, helped by associating one fact with another.

 William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

f) reasoning 

  • looking at the advantages and disadvantages of doing something.
  • identifying what’s important.
  • deciding what to do.


g) instinct 

Things you do automatically without thinking.

 William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success

7. Be “tender-minded” and “tough-minded”

Be kind to others, but tough and courageous enough to:

  • deal with your problems
  • stand up for what you think is right.


8. Understand your emotions

Emotion is the feeling that results from the physical changes caused by something exciting or disturbing.

So you’re sad because you cry, not crying because you’re sad.

“We feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble”, he said.

A famous example of this theory (what is now called the James-Lange theory of emotion) is

“I see a bear, I run, I am afraid”.

The fear results from seeing the bear.

William James - Psychology, Ethics, and Success 

9. Triumph over evil and religion

Happy people:

  • don't dwell on evil and positively conquer it with goodness and optimism.
  • avoid the “sick soul” , where your evil is accepted as incurable, essential and all-powerful.
  • have the “will to believe” (the motivation to believe in something good)

Religion can give you:

  • this will to believe.
  • the ability to conquer evil.

First hand (or authentic) religion is best, based not on dogmatic doctrine but:

  • direct experience. 
  • questioning of faith.
  • a personal pursuit of meaning 


10. “Stream of thought”

Life is a “stream” of  one thought after another, each affected by your experience. 


Key quote on learning  and wisdom

Truth is what works.


Key quote on creativity

Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.


Key quote on the learning organization

A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.


Key quote on decision making

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.


Key quote on communication

There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.


Key quotes on success

The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success

There is but one cause of human failure...man’s lack of faith in his true self.


Key quotes on change

If things are to move upward, someone must take the first step and assume the risk of it.

To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly.


Key quotes on positive thinking

A thing is important if anyone think it important.

Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.


Key quotes on happiness

There is no happiness without action.

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision


Key quote on motivation

The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.


Key quote on relationships

When two people meet there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other sees him and each man as he really is.


Key quote on ethics

Sow an action and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny. 

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