Archive for Wisdom

Selfishness is not the issue

What is selfishness? It is generally defined as putting our own needs before the needs of others. It is the opposite of altruism, and agreed by many to be an undesirable trait. The paradox of selfishness is that, although it supposedly means putting ourselves first, selfish people are generally the least happy of us all. It is actually the practise of unselfishness that benefits us the most. So we should really try to be unselfish if we want to become happier…but isn’t that just another form of selfishness?

The paradox arises because selfishness is the wrong issue to focus on. The quality that distinguishes happy and altruistic people from their unhappy and self-centred counterparts is not one of selfishness, but one of awareness. Awareness is the understanding that helping others is actually beneficial both for them and for us. If people realized this truth, then they would never be selfish, for it would be senseless. Thus, selfish people are those who are unaware.

It may seem lenient to describe selfish people as simply “unaware”. We might prefer to vilify them as evil and immoral. However, describing them as “unaware” is not lenient, it’s just the plain truth. Noone knowingly acts in a way that causes harm both to others and to themselves, and so when we see someone doing this, we can assume that they lack understanding. This does not mean that murderers should be allowed to roam free. However, we should not lock them away to punish them for evil, but rather to help them understand the effects of their actions (and also to protect the rest of society).

A nice analogy is to compare humanity to a human body, with each person being an individual cell. Cells in our body want to survive. The best way for them to survive is for them to work together so that the body as a whole survives. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, multiply uncontrollably. This benefits them in the short-term, but the end result is that the body dies, and thus all cells – the cancerous ones included – die. So are the cancerous cells selfish? Probably. But their real problem is not selfishness but a lack of awareness. They fail to understand that their multiplication will destroy the whole body, including themselves. If they developed awareness, everyone would benefit.

Hence, instead of passing moral judgements on selfishness and unselfishness, we should focus on awareness and a lack of awareness. Because it is through developing awareness that we come to understand the true importance of love and compassion. When we have this understanding, questions of selfishness and unselfishness are no longer relevant.

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Relating to our moods: labeling and monitoring

Moods colour our judgement. When our mood is bad, life seems grim and everyone is out to get us. Numerous studies show that a low mood causes us to judge others less favourably and to have an irrationally negative attitude towards life. Fortunately, studies also show that an awareness of our moods can mitigate this effect. If we know that we are in a bad mood, we can compensate for our negative thinking.

So it is good to be aware of our moods, but we must be careful of how we do it. There are two main styles of mood awareness. In the first, we cheerfully acknowledge our negative mood and realize that our dim outlook is probably a result of this. We ignore our grim thoughts and wait until we feel more positive. Thus, an awareness of our bad mood helps us to take our thoughts less seriously and stops us from making any rash decisions based upon them. The second style of mood awareness is less positive. Here, we tend to dwell on our mood and allow the thought “I’m in a bad mood” to keep us trapped in this state and to intensify our negative feelings. I’m sure we have all experienced this at times. These two styles of mood awareness are known as mood labeling and mood monitoring respectively (Swinkels and Guiliano, 1995). Mood labeling refers to the ability to identify and categorize one’s moods, whereas mood monitoring refers to a tendency to scrutinize and focus on one’s moods.

Although both styles involve self-awareness, mood labeling has positive results whereas mood monitoring has negative. The problem with mood monitoring is that we devote excessive attention to our state of mind, and have difficulty concentrating on other things. In other words, we dwell on our bad mood far too much. When we catch ourselves doing this, we can gently shift our style towards one of mood labeling. We want to be aware of our moods and the effect that they are having on our thinking, but we do not want to be caught up and absorbed by them. Awareness of one’s moods is good, absorption in one’s moods is not. Mood labeling is a useful tool to achieve this goal, giving us an awareness of how our moods are influencing our thinking, but without intensifying them or giving them power over us.

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