Critics of capitalism blame a “greed is good” mentality on Adam Smith because his book Wealth of Nations is all about self-interest and what it does for us. It would take the sting out of critiques of capitalism if another of Smith’s works got a higher billing, namely Theory of Moral Sentiments where Adam Smith spells out civil society in fact rests on altruism. The number of books that popularise Wealth of Nations could fill a library; books spreading Adam Smith’s message about altruism are few and far between. Adam Smith has been quoted in many fields. But now to be invoked by a lifestyle guru with broad appeal to mass-market readers must be a first for him.  Janice Kaplan edited Parade, a US magazine with a print run of 32 million that offers readers the vicarious thrill of up-close insights into the lives of stars and celebs. So we can take it as read that Kaplan is adept at pitching a message, and this she does with aplomb in The Gratitude Diaries where she mixes diary with lifestyle coaching, buttressed with scientific evidence and references to some of the greats of the philosophy canon.

The game-plan of the Gratitude Diaries is straightforward: let readers see through the eyes of the writer how she starts feeling better about herself by making others feel better about themselves. All that is needed to do this is to follow a simple, two-step recipe: first, think of someone to whom you can say “thank you.”  Then, go and do it. Of course you heard this before. Everyone has. Remember the thank-you letters mom made you write after Christmas? The habit unfortunately rarely survives the teenage years, and by the time we are grown-ups the art of saying thank-you is long forgotten. Re-learning it takes a conscious effort and to show how it’s done Kaplan walks you through it.

Dutton Books, 2016
Paperback £11.91

The book starts out showing Kaplan vulnerable to the sort of tristesse that readers of Parade know only too well hovers like a cloud over so many of the Hollywood celebs who grace the pages of Parade: this woman who has everything, in spite of success at work and a stable home life, cannot shake off a grumpy funk she finds herself in. Kaplan eschews the tried-and-tested nostrums that work (and most often fail) for a Hollywood star (replace yacht/cook/spouse) and goes for something altogether unconventional: her New Year’s resolution is never to let a day pass without noticing something to be grateful for. The Gratitude Diaries show Kaplan putting this to the test in her daily life, with husband, children, friends, colleagues. Once that something or someone was found, she wrote it down in her diary. And then she went one better, she told them she was grateful. It did not take long, and this approach started to turn things round for her. She felt better, mentally and physically too. And that’s the moral of the story: when you start to look, you will find not a day goes by without something or someone having made your life better.

Saying thank you takes some practice, but like every other habit you get better at it as you go along. After a while it becomes addictive too, because the payback from saying thank you is instant. The better you get at showing others you appreciate what they do for you, the better you start to feel about yourself. Kaplan laces her self-help diary with interviews with some of the world’s leading psychological and medical researchers working out why sensing and showing gratitude has benefits all round.  David Kahneman’s work is one example. One of Kahneman’s many insights into the way we process memories is that the impact of how something ends matters much more than the memory of what went before. For example, if the sun shines for ten days on your summer break but it rains on the last three you will go home miffed. Had it been the other way round, had it rained for ten days with the sun coming out at the very end you would go home feeling a warm glow. This applies to saying thank, because saying thank you sums up an interaction with someone and makes for a bonding experience, a cue raising our sense of self esteem. The effect is to let us get more out of life.

One of the experts Kaplan went to see for her book was Professor Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire, a psychologist who studies what explains why some people are lucky when others are less so. One might think luck is something that happens without something bringing it about. Otherwise, how can we call it luck? But this perception, according to Wiseman, is wrong. For, as his research shows, people who are lucky more often than others also tend to have a certain outlook, an attitude that lets luck find them. People who are lucky have a particular way of looking at things. To pick an example, when they read a newspaper, they focus on good news rather than on bad ones.

Kaplan’s book also includes a gallery of sages whose counsel points in the same direction. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca all have cameo walk on parts. And pride of place goes to Adam Smith, whom Kaplan quotes, “the sentiment which most immediately and directly prompts us to reward is gratitude.” That is where Kaplan’s book ties in with debates over the future of capitalism. Adam Smith not only was the acute analyst of self-interest, for Kaplan he also was the “gratitude guy” who showed why to a healthy society gratitude matters so much. Self-interest and gratitude are complements, not contradictions. Putting that into practice in one’s own life is something anyone can do. It takes more effort to roll it out across society at large. But that too can be done, as Kaplan relates from interviewing James Arthur, head of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue at the University of Birmingham, which spearheads campaigns to promote a spirit of gratitude in public life. If you are someone who feels there is a link between political economy and moral philosophy but who is put off by books on the subject because they are too techy or sleep-inducing, then this is a book for you.