The Laws of Human Nature
“Greene rightly reminds us that in order to understand others we must first and foremost understand what makes ourselves tick.”
The Laws of Human Nature is a bit of a confounding read. On the one hand, it provides some first-rate comprehensive and in-depth information about how to deal with our fellow human beings effectively.
On the other hand, it teaches us to deliberately manipulate people in order to meet our desires and reach our goals, such as when Greene explains how to get people “to fall under your spell” or suggests that we withdraw, act coldly or play hard to get.
Understandably, this type of instruction might make some readers bristle. Then again, other readers might argue that we engage in manipulation anyway, most often unconsciously, so why not learn to do it intelligently and intentionally in order to increase our chances of success?
Readers who are seeking quick-fix strategies to win more and lose less in love, work, or any other aspects of life will likely be frustrated by this almost 600-page treatise. In fact, one of its refreshing virtues is that it offers anything but a quick fix and, therefore, stands out from scores of self-help books whose promise of rapid transformation may make readers feel the urge to speed-read them.
Greene provides answers to how humankind thinks, feels and behaves, but he does so by covering a large swath of territory at an unhurried pace. Readers who have the bandwidth and enjoy a leisurely read will not be disappointed by his explanation of our most basic modus operandi.
The laws of human nature Greene expounds upon are about Irrationality, Narcissism, Role-playing, Compulsive Behavior, Covetousness, Shortsightedness, Defensiveness, Self-sabotage, Repression, Envy, Grandiosity, Gender Rigidity, Aimlessness, Conformity, Fickleness, Aggression, Generational Myopia, and Death Denial.
They involve subjects such as the emotional self, healthy self-love versus narcissism, the masks we hide behind, our character, desires, perspective, attitude, purpose, dark side, limitations, fragile egos, aggression, gender traits, resistance to change, and fear of death, as well how group dynamics, the essence of true leadership, and taking stock of the times we live in should all be considered if we are to successfully engage with—and disengage from—one another.
Greene’s intense curiosity about the inner workings of humanity is contagious, as he invites us to join him as fellow sleuths on his investigation of why people, including ourselves, do what we do. He rightly (and frequently) reminds us that in order to understand others, we must first and foremost understand what makes ourselves tick.
To set the stage for optimum learning, he starts by correcting the false assumption that humans are rational beings. In fact, that we would think so only proves is point about how irrational we are. He advises us to be reflective and honest with ourselves so that we may identify our strengths and vulnerabilities, and he encourages us to judge neither ourselves nor others in the process.
Each chapter begins with a short bio or story about a well-known figure, including Pericles, Martin Luther King Jr., Coco Chanel, Leo Tolstoy, King Louis XV, Queen Elizabeth I, Howard Hughes Jr. and Milton Erickson. It is followed by Greene’s “interpretation” of the bio or story which illustrates the points he is making about a particular law of human nature such as narcissism, envy, defensiveness, grandiosity, conformity, etc.
He then goes on to explain how these darker inclinations can harm both us and society, how we might recognize and conquer our frailties, and how, by observing vulnerabilities in others, we might use them to our own and society’s best advantage. One caution: Some readers might find the biographies and stories absorbing and pertinent, while others might find them uninteresting and a distraction.
Though Greene draws from sociology, philosophy, and history throughout this book, its underpinnings are mostly psychological and include discussions of attachment and its disorders, effects of nature and nurture, healthy versus unhealthy self-love, shame and why we hide our authentic selves, the victim mindset, toxic character traits, the Shadow self, internal conflicts about conformity, dangerous desires and pursuits, and the upside and downside of aggression.
The aim of this book is human enlightenment rather than boiling down the attainment of a successful, happy life into a few clever maneuvers that will get us from here to there.
Though human nature seems by its very definition to be immutable, Greene helps us see that subtle and even radical change is possible over time to alter seemingly ingrained habits. To do this, he urges us to develop a practice of honing observational skills and using them to analyze everything we and others do, think, feel and say.
Eventual success is built on harvesting knowledge based on what we notice and experience about ourselves and everyone else every minute of every day in order to develop a deep-seated understanding of human nature and how to transform it for the better.