Archive for Happiness

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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The dangers of a happiness obsession

Western society places enormous emphasis on the pursuit of happiness. Many Americans believe it a constitutional right (although, actually, happiness is only mentioned in the Declaration of Independence). The Dalai Lama opens The Art of Happiness by saying that “the very motion of our life is towards happiness”, echoing the words of Aristotle over 2000 years before him. Clearly this pursuit forms a major part of our lives, but is it possible to place too much emphasis on happiness? Is there a danger of an obsession?

This question is addressed in The Psychology of Economic Decisions, and some potential drawbacks are given. One drawback is that we may be so busy evaluating our happiness level that we do not simply enjoy the moment. If we recall some of our happiest moments in life, what were we thinking during them? Most likely, we were not thinking about happiness…we were simply happy. Maybe a split-second later we thought about happiness, but not during that actual moment. Generally speaking, we find activities more enjoyable when we are free from self-evaluation and instead are engaging fully in the activity. An obsession with achieving happiness can interfere with this process.

Another danger is that focusing on this goal of total happiness can make us less satisfied with our current situation. We can be left thinking about how life could be even better. In other words, an obsession with happiness can make us over-sensitive to every moment when we are not happy, which undermines our very goal. Perhaps it is better to simply stop thinking about it?

This is not all to say that we should not pursue happiness. However, we must be careful how we go about it. If we approach this pursuit from the premise that there is something “wrong” with our current situation then we may be shooting ourselves in the foot. After all, as mentioned here, gratitude is an important component of a happy life. Furthermore, the tendency to over-think things is an ever-present danger. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking about happiness, and actually just be happy.

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