Category: Good Living

Being individualistic and altruistic at the same time. The story of Jack Casey the firefighter.

Have you ever swam through icy waters fully clothed and without a life jacket to drag to the shore an unconscious woman who you never met before? Jack Casey has. In the course of two years he responded as a volunteer to more than five hundred emergency calls ending up saving people from burning buildings or risking his personal safety by entering situations where persons were stabbed by their own family members. Ever since high school volunteering has been a big part of Jack Casey’s life. In addition to being a member of the rescue squad he spends three hours a week teaching a Red Cross course in first aid and takes people backpacking through an outdoor program he initiated a few years before. Jack Casey is truly a selfless american hero who wants to be there for the others.

At the same time Jack Casey describes himself as a person ”who likes to be relatively independent of other people.” He refuses to be dependent on anyone and prides himself for being a rugged individualist who does what he wants, when he wants, disregarding anyone’s opinion. Freedom to do what one wants has been said to be the number one American value. At least for Jack Casey it is his guiding principle.

Jack Casey represents what Robert Wuthnow calls an American paradox. On the one hand he is more individualistic and less dependent on others than most of us. On the other hand he cares for others much more than the average person. What is he then, an individualist or an altruist?

The answer is: he is both. Being individualistic and caring about others don’t cancel each others out. They are like apples and oranges. First there is the issue of who controls our lives? Are we able to make independent choices or are we so weak and dependent on others that we let them run our lives? This is the question of individualism. It is thus a question about are we in charge of our own lives.

Second we have the issue of who do we care about? Are we egoistic persons for whom only our own benefits count? Or are we more altruistic persons who find satisfaction in helping others? This is the question of altruism. An individualistic person who makes his or her own life decisions can make a totally independent choice of whether to help only oneself or help also those in need. As long as the choice is one’s own, one is an individualist. Thus it is perfectly possible to be an altruistic individualist.

The paradox is that in our times individualistic people are actually more altruistic than less individualistic people. Wuthnow found in her survey that those people who placed a high emphasis on self-oriented values such as realizing one’s talent were actually slightly more likely to be involved in charitable activities than other citizens.

The reason for this is found in the fact that we are constantly bombarded with propaganda that says that everyone should take care of only their own business. There is a norm in our society that tells that either be self-interested or be a fool. And no one wants to be the fool. Thus many people suppress their more altruistic instincts in order to live up to the selfish norms of our times. They don’t dare to be unselfish as they fear that people would mock them for not being able to take care of their own interests. It actually takes courage to admit that one did something for others without any self-interest in mind.

We live in paradoxical times: It is the weak who believe that you should only care about yourself. It takes some balls to be out there and admit that one cares about others and is willing to make sacrifices for them. So be a true individualist and dare to care about others!

Meaning of life revealed: It’s about others

Ok, let’s have a take on this age-old mystery. The answer is in fact quite simple. The meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful to other people. It’s about making a positive contribution in the lives of those people one holds dear. Why? I’ll tell you why.

To start with, we need to focus on the one asking the question. Because most of us never ask such a question in all its seriousness. For most of us the question is a joke, something to make fun of when we want to mock too deep-going thinking. On the other hand, there are those artists who have taken this enigma so seriously that they have been driven to suicide by this haunting question. So, who asks the question?

Only those people who have for some reason distanced themselves from the framework for life given to them by their upbringing. Most people never seriously question the worldview provided by the society around them or their religion – be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or the modern alternative: Consumerism. The question opens itself up in all its seriousness to only those of us who for one reason or another have started to question the given, the values and purposes that they were brought up to believe in.

Next, we need to look at the question itself. What do we really ask, when we ask about the meaningfulness of our lives?

Question of meaningfulness is in the end a question about making our lives have meaning in some framework bigger than ourselves. As long as we are asking how to make ourselves happy or how to maximize our own outcomes in life we are not asking about the meaning of our life. These are perfectly legitimate questions and some people are able to live their lives without asking anything else. But only when they ask what bigger meaning their lives might have, do they start to care about making their lives meaningful. Thus we need to find something bigger than ourselves that we can believe in and that we feel we can contribute to in order to feel that our life has a meaning.

Where to then look for something bigger than ourselves? As said, those asking the question are the people who no longer believe to an answer external to them. They have distanced themselves from modern consumerism and ancient religions. There is then only one direction from which they can look for an answer: Inside of them. And what do we find inside of us? We find that we are creatures that are <a href="deeply dependent on others. We are creatures that want to belong. We are creatures that build our sense of value through sensing how others value us. It is extremely hard to uphold a high regard of ourselves if others don’t care about us at all. As creatures who need to feel connected, we want that others care about us.

Given our psychological build-up the most solid base for purpose we can genuinely believe in is found in other people. When we believe that we contribute positively to lives of others, then we feel that our life has value and meaning. That’s how simple it is. What group of others is most important to one is then a matter of preference. Some find meaning through their own kids, others through their work and still others through some voluntary work: Orphans in Africa, homeless in your home town, breast cancer victims, whatever is your cup of tea.

Meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful to others. It is up to you to decide to whom you want to be meaningful.

Ok, let’s have a take on this age-old mystery. The answer is in fact quite simple. The meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful to other people. It’s about making a positive contribution in the lives of those people one holds dear. Why? I’ll tell you why.

To start with, we need to focus on the one asking the question. Because most of us never ask such a question in all its seriousness. For most of us the question is a joke, something to make fun of when we want to mock too deep-going thinking. On the other hand, there are those artists who have taken this enigma so seriously that they have been driven to suicide by this haunting question. So, who asks the question?

Only those people who have for some reason distanced themselves from the framework for life given to them by their upbringing. Most people never seriously question the worldview provided by the society around them or their religion – be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or the modern alternative: Consumerism. The question opens itself up in all its seriousness to only those of us who for one reason or another have started to question the given, the values and purposes that they were brought up to believe in.

Next, we need to look at the question itself. What do we really ask, when we ask about the meaningfulness of our lives?

Question of meaningfulness is in the end a question about making our lives have meaning in some framework bigger than ourselves. As long as we are asking how to make ourselves happy or how to maximize our own outcomes in life we are not asking about the meaning of our life. These are perfectly legitimate questions and some people are able to live their lives without asking anything else. But only when they ask what bigger meaning their lives might have, do they start to care about making their lives meaningful. Thus we need to find something bigger than ourselves that we can believe in and that we feel we can contribute to in order to feel that our life has a meaning.

Where to then look for something bigger than ourselves? As said, those asking the question are the people who no longer believe to an answer external to them. They have distanced themselves from modern consumerism and ancient religions. There is then only one direction from which they can look for an answer: Inside of them. And what do we find inside of us? We find that we are creatures that are <a href="deeply dependent on others. We are creatures that want to belong. We are creatures that build our sense of value through sensing how others value us. It is extremely hard to uphold a high regard of ourselves if others don’t care about us at all. As creatures who need to feel connected, we want that others care about us.

Given our psychological build-up the most solid base for purpose we can genuinely believe in is found in other people. When we believe that we contribute positively to lives of others, then we feel that our life has value and meaning. That’s how simple it is. What group of others is most important to one is then a matter of preference. Some find meaning through their own kids, others through their work and still others through some voluntary work: Orphans in Africa, homeless in your home town, breast cancer victims, whatever is your cup of tea.

Meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful to others. It is up to you to decide to whom you want to be meaningful.

What brand of individualism are you wearing? The original noble individualism, the watered down consumer individualism or the new alternative: compassionate individualism?

Modern western societies have been characterized by individualism. It is said that no other time or place has seen such a strong form of cultural individualism than what we are experiencing right now. But what does this individualism mean? And have we actually forsaken the liberating promises that this individualism originally held for us?

Modern individualism started as a battle cry against the constraints of a collectivistic culture where your position and possibilities in life and society were by and large determined by the time you were born. In medieval times you were given a role from the outside and then you were your role: as a farmer, father, woman, citizen and so forth certain behaviors were expected from you. And you didn’t have much saying against this.

As the cities got bigger and new bourgeois class got stronger in the 19th century the possibilities to determine one’s faith in life increased. This development was accompanied by philosophers who preached that man should not take the values of the society for granted but rather oneself craft one’s own values. This noble individualism was preached for example by Ralph Waldo Emerson in America and by Friedrich Nietzsche in Europe. Man has a right to carve his own way of living. And this quest for claiming one’s own life into one’s own hands starts with searching from within the values that one is willing to commit oneself to.

Then something went wrong and this noble individualism was watered down. Some claim that the horrors of First World War are to blame. Too many stubborn gentlemen followed their ’duty’ to senseless deaths. Others see that nazi propaganda stole the concept and transformed personal moral strength into mass obedience to a sociopath. As Roy Baumeister puts it: ”When it comes to bad PR, there’s nothing quite like a personal endorsement from Adolf Hitler.” Still others claim that the new consumer society and advertising industry with the slogan ’you are what you buy’ transformed inner moral convictions into outer displays of identity.

In any case, what we seem to have now is quite far removed from the noble origins of individualism. The right to define yourself through finding your own values has been transformed into a right to define yourself through wearing certain brands. I have desires and I have a right to fulfill them all. That’s what modern consumer individualism is about. This attitude was displayed most naked in recent riots in London. Instead of demanding some political changes the disillusioned protesters just broke into luxury shops to steal the products they couldn’t afford in normal life. As criminologist and youth culture expert Professor John Pitts commented on Guardian:

”Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy … A generation bred on a diet of excessive consumerism and bombarded by advertising had been unleashed.”

So how to fight this watered down version of individualism where the cultural norm seems to be that everyone should maximize their hedonistic pleasures in life? I don’t believe that the noble individualism is an answer. First of all, writers proposing that everyone should create their own values vastly overestimated the capacity of us human beings – including themselves – to transform our basic values just like that. On the other hand, too much nobleness easily leads one to overlook those fellow citizens that are not so noble. A self-proclaimed Übermensch can have a hard time tolerating that he or she has to spend time with us normal human beings.

What I propose instead is what could be called compassionate individualism. This brand of individualism puts less emphasis on what one looks like and more on what one really feels like. We all have the capacity to be compassionate and care for others. It is just often hidden beneath the cultural propaganda that shouts at us that we should only care about our own happiness. Compassionate individualism is about being able to ignore these messages and listen instead to oneself and what one’s own heart has to say. And this listening leads most of us to find more capacity for compassion than what we were mislead to believe by our dominating culture.

This explains the paradox revealed by research done in US that found that ”people who were the most individualistic were also the most likely to value doing things to help others.” People who were most individualistic were least influenced by the cultural propaganda and most able to follow their own way of living. As they followed their own path, they found that within them there was a heart that cared about others. And this lead them to live a life in which they put more emphasis into helping others than the weaker individuals around them.

Consumer individualism is reactive individualism. It is a feeble attempt to be individual by consuming the products that marketers say will make us individuals. Compassionate individualism is active individualism. In it the person truly listens to oneself to find from within the values one wants to follow in one’s life. The question is, what path do you want to follow?Modern western societies have been characterized by individualism. It is said that no other time or place has seen such a strong form of cultural individualism than what we are experiencing right now. But what does this individualism mean? And have we actually forsaken the liberating promises that this individualism originally held for us?

Modern individualism started as a battle cry against the constraints of a collectivistic culture where your position and possibilities in life and society were by and large determined by the time you were born. In medieval times you were given a role from the outside and then you were your role: as a farmer, father, woman, citizen and so forth certain behaviors were expected from you. And you didn’t have much saying against this.

As the cities got bigger and new bourgeois class got stronger in the 19th century the possibilities to determine one’s faith in life increased. This development was accompanied by philosophers who preached that man should not take the values of the society for granted but rather oneself craft one’s own values. This noble individualism was preached for example by Ralph Waldo Emerson in America and by Friedrich Nietzsche in Europe. Man has a right to carve his own way of living. And this quest for claiming one’s own life into one’s own hands starts with searching from within the values that one is willing to commit oneself to.

Then something went wrong and this noble individualism was watered down. Some claim that the horrors of First World War are to blame. Too many stubborn gentlemen followed their ’duty’ to senseless deaths. Others see that nazi propaganda stole the concept and transformed personal moral strength into mass obedience to a sociopath. As Roy Baumeister puts it: ”When it comes to bad PR, there’s nothing quite like a personal endorsement from Adolf Hitler.” Still others claim that the new consumer society and advertising industry with the slogan ’you are what you buy’ transformed inner moral convictions into outer displays of identity.

In any case, what we seem to have now is quite far removed from the noble origins of individualism. The right to define yourself through finding your own values has been transformed into a right to define yourself through wearing certain brands. I have desires and I have a right to fulfill them all. That’s what modern consumer individualism is about. This attitude was displayed most naked in recent riots in London. Instead of demanding some political changes the disillusioned protesters just broke into luxury shops to steal the products they couldn’t afford in normal life. As criminologist and youth culture expert Professor John Pitts commented on Guardian:

”Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy … A generation bred on a diet of excessive consumerism and bombarded by advertising had been unleashed.”

So how to fight this watered down version of individualism where the cultural norm seems to be that everyone should maximize their hedonistic pleasures in life? I don’t believe that the noble individualism is an answer. First of all, writers proposing that everyone should create their own values vastly overestimated the capacity of us human beings – including themselves – to transform our basic values just like that. On the other hand, too much nobleness easily leads one to overlook those fellow citizens that are not so noble. A self-proclaimed Übermensch can have a hard time tolerating that he or she has to spend time with us normal human beings.

What I propose instead is what could be called compassionate individualism. This brand of individualism puts less emphasis on what one looks like and more on what one really feels like. We all have the capacity to be compassionate and care for others. It is just often hidden beneath the cultural propaganda that shouts at us that we should only care about our own happiness. Compassionate individualism is about being able to ignore these messages and listen instead to oneself and what one’s own heart has to say. And this listening leads most of us to find more capacity for compassion than what we were mislead to believe by our dominating culture.

This explains the paradox revealed by research done in US that found that ”people who were the most individualistic were also the most likely to value doing things to help others.” People who were most individualistic were least influenced by the cultural propaganda and most able to follow their own way of living. As they followed their own path, they found that within them there was a heart that cared about others. And this lead them to live a life in which they put more emphasis into helping others than the weaker individuals around them.

Consumer individualism is reactive individualism. It is a feeble attempt to be individual by consuming the products that marketers say will make us individuals. Compassionate individualism is active individualism. In it the person truly listens to oneself to find from within the values one wants to follow in one’s life. The question is, what path do you want to follow?

Self-control through greater cause: Martin Luther’s solution for not eating the marshmallow

”Here stand I, I cannot otherwise!” Threatened with excommunication Martin Luther stood in front of the Emperor Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire and was asked to take back his interpretation of scriptures because they defied the power of the pope. Martin requested some time to think, prayed, consulted a few friends and gave his response the next day: ”I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen!”

A four-year old girl is left alone in the room with one marshmallow on the table. The child is told that she can eat the marshmallow whenever she wants. But if she is able to hold off until the experimenter returns, she will get a second marshmallow.

According to Roy Baumeister, one of the most distinguished social psychologist alive, willpower is the ”greatest human strength. It is also the one thing that most of us think we have too little of. In fact, when people are asked about their failings, lack of self-control is on the top of the list. Yet its importance is tremendous as the famous marshmallow experience has showed. The children who were able to hold out the entire 15 minutes the researcher was away at the age of four outperformed those who couldn’t in all possible fields of life when they were adults. They scored 210 points higher on SAT, became more educated, earned higher salaries, put on less weight, were more popular among their peers, used less drugs and so forth. Willpower seems to be the single factor that explains future success better than almost any other measure, including IQ.

But where to get willpower?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most influential American thinker of all time, was highly impressed by Martin Luther’s words. In his essay Fate he ponders on the strong hold that fate has in how our lives turn out. ”Nature is no sentimentalist, — does not cosset or pamper us. We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman; but swallows your ship like a grain of dust.” Nevertheless, we humans are equipped with something special – thought and will. With them we can carve our own destiny if they are deep and strong enough.

For Emerson, the source of strong will lies in surrendering oneself to a greater cause:
”Alaric and Bonaparte must believe they rest on a truth, or their will can be bought or bent. There is a bribe possible for any finite will. But the pure sympathy with universal ends is an infinite force, and cannot be bribed or bent. Whoever has had experience of the moral sentiment cannot choose but believe in unlimited power.”

In other words, when we have principles and values that we believe in, our will is unbent. When we discover a cause that is greater than ourselves, it becomes a motivational mainstay that sharpens our will: ”When a strong will appears, it usually results from a certain unity of organization, as if the whole energy of body and minds flowed in one direction.” We are so empowered by our cause that we are able to stand any pressure.

Here I stand, upon these principles. If they lead me into excommunication, then so be it. For these principles are stronger than me. Failing them would be to fail what is worthwhile in life. Therefore I stand by them, whatever it takes. I have no choice. The fate of these principles is the fate of myself.

Success in life is about willpower. And willpower is ultimately about finding a cause for oneself that is so great and capturing that it molds one’s whole being to flow towards this one, noble goal. The best way for getting things done is to connect one’s things to something that is larger than oneself. When one has found a true mission for one’s life, the necessary self-control emerges from within.

”Here stand I, I cannot otherwise!” Threatened with excommunication Martin Luther stood in front of the Emperor Charles V and the Holy Roman Empire and was asked to take back his interpretation of scriptures because they defied the power of the pope. Martin requested some time to think, prayed, consulted a few friends and gave his response the next day: ”I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen!”

A four-year old girl is left alone in the room with one marshmallow on the table. The child is told that she can eat the marshmallow whenever she wants. But if she is able to hold off until the experimenter returns, she will get a second marshmallow.

According to Roy Baumeister, one of the most distinguished social psychologist alive, willpower is the ”greatest human strength. It is also the one thing that most of us think we have too little of. In fact, when people are asked about their failings, lack of self-control is on the top of the list. Yet its importance is tremendous as the famous marshmallow experience has showed. The children who were able to hold out the entire 15 minutes the researcher was away at the age of four outperformed those who couldn’t in all possible fields of life when they were adults. They scored 210 points higher on SAT, became more educated, earned higher salaries, put on less weight, were more popular among their peers, used less drugs and so forth. Willpower seems to be the single factor that explains future success better than almost any other measure, including IQ.

But where to get willpower?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most influential American thinker of all time, was highly impressed by Martin Luther’s words. In his essay Fate he ponders on the strong hold that fate has in how our lives turn out. ”Nature is no sentimentalist, — does not cosset or pamper us. We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman; but swallows your ship like a grain of dust.” Nevertheless, we humans are equipped with something special – thought and will. With them we can carve our own destiny if they are deep and strong enough.

For Emerson, the source of strong will lies in surrendering oneself to a greater cause:
”Alaric and Bonaparte must believe they rest on a truth, or their will can be bought or bent. There is a bribe possible for any finite will. But the pure sympathy with universal ends is an infinite force, and cannot be bribed or bent. Whoever has had experience of the moral sentiment cannot choose but believe in unlimited power.”

In other words, when we have principles and values that we believe in, our will is unbent. When we discover a cause that is greater than ourselves, it becomes a motivational mainstay that sharpens our will: ”When a strong will appears, it usually results from a certain unity of organization, as if the whole energy of body and minds flowed in one direction.” We are so empowered by our cause that we are able to stand any pressure.

Here I stand, upon these principles. If they lead me into excommunication, then so be it. For these principles are stronger than me. Failing them would be to fail what is worthwhile in life. Therefore I stand by them, whatever it takes. I have no choice. The fate of these principles is the fate of myself.

Success in life is about willpower. And willpower is ultimately about finding a cause for oneself that is so great and capturing that it molds one’s whole being to flow towards this one, noble goal. They best way for getting things done is to connect one’s things to something that is larger than oneself. When one has found a true mission for one’s life, the necessary willpower emerges from within.

Want happiness? Make those around you happy! 5 reasons why this is the best strategy.

Take whatever book or article that reports the results of recent scientific research on happiness. One conclusion they have in common is that social relationships are what make people happy or unhappy. Here’s Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, for example:

”If I had to summarize all the scientific literature on the causes of human happiness in one word, that word would be ’social’. … If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I wouldn’t want to know your gender, religion, health, or income. I’d want to know about your social network—about your friends and family and the strength of your bonds with them.” (from Harvard Business Review)

The best way to have good relationships is to be good towards others. That’s because relationship is about mutuality, you can’t have a high-quality relationship with someone if you don’t give something into it. Thus we are more happy when we care more about the relationship than we care about ourselves. For social animals like us, it is through relations that happiness enters our being.

So the importance of relationships is paramount for our happiness. But there are at least four additional reasons why we should care about others happiness more than our own happiness. Reason number two is purely prudential: I do a favor for you and I can expect a favor from you when I need it. I exchange favors more or less formally with those around me; some owe me, to some I do owe. By doing good deeds I build a buffer of supportive network that is there when I need it the most.

This social exchange perspective is made stronger through the mechanism of reputation. When I do good deeds to someone, the word tends to spread around – and the word spreads around even more efficiently when I am an asshole towards someone. Because people value justice, those who have a reputation of being good to others can expect favors even from people whom they have never directly benefited. Similarly, nobody wants to step up for a guy who is known to care only about himself.

The reason number three is about emotional contagion. I am affected directly by the mood of others. Through mirror neurons and other mechanisms I pick up the moods of those around me and they have a direct effect on my own mood. Bring in front of me a person who radiates excitement and I feel more energetic myself. Bring me in the midst of miserable people and my mood drops. A human being is not an a island. Thus there can’t be an island of happiness in the midst of a sea of sadness.

When we see someone smiling, it makes us more happy. Scientist call it emotional contagion.

Fourthly, researchers show that when people do acts of kindness towards others it is many times the giver who gets a bigger boost in happiness than the receiver. As a social species our brain is wired to give us a boost of happiness when we are kind to others. In the same way that it is wired to give us a boost of happiness when we eat sugar. The difference is that the positive effect produced by good deeds lasts much longer.

But most deeply, we identify with other people. The closer they are to me the more their pains and joys are also my pains and joys. In my last post I described how having a child expands our identity from a person who cares only about oneself to a person for whom my own well-being and the well-being of the child are almost inseparable. But actually the same thing applies to some degree to all our relationships. My identity is more or less overlapping with all those people that are close to me. Therefore their joys and miseries affect me directly, as if they would be my own joys and miseries.

So a practical advice: If you visit the same cashiers in a shop every day, do something extra for them. Make them smile a few times and in the future your own happiness will receive a boost everytime you see them. And if you live with somebody, you better make sure that you think more about how to make him or her happy than you think about how he or she makes you happy. As we are more prone to notice our own good deeds this is the only strategy that can make a relationship sustainable, balanced and happy for both.

Being a human is about being with others. Our own well-being and happiness is entangled to our social relations in a number of ways. Even to the degree that our best bet in increasing our own happiness is to invest in the happiness of others.

It is paradoxical but it is true. The less you care about your own happiness and the more you care about the happiness of others, the more happy you are yourself.

Take whatever book or article that reports the results of recent scientific research on happiness. One conclusion they have in common is that social relationships are what make people happy or unhappy. Here’s Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, for example:

”If I had to summarize all the scientific literature on the causes of human happiness in one word, that word would be ’social’. … If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I wouldn’t want to know your gender, religion, health, or income. I’d want to know about your social network—about your friends and family and the strength of your bonds with them.” (from Harvard Business Review)

The best way to have good relationships is to be good towards others. That’s because relationship is about mutuality, you can’t have a high-quality relationship with someone if you don’t give something into it. Thus we are more happy when we care more about the relationship than we care about ourselves. For social animals like us, it is through relations that happiness enters our being.

So the importance of relationships is paramount for our happiness. But there are at least four additional reasons why we should care about others happiness more than our own happiness. Reason number two is purely prudential: I do a favor for you and I can expect a favor from you when I need it. I exchange favors more or less formally with those around me; some owe me, to some I do owe. By doing good deeds I build a buffer of supportive network that is there when I need it the most.

This social exchange perspective is made stronger through the mechanism of reputation. When I do good deeds to someone, the word tends to spread around – and the word spreads around even more efficiently when I am an asshole towards someone. Because people value justice, those who have a reputation of being good to others can expect favors even from people whom they have never directly benefited. Similarly, nobody wants to step up for a guy who is known to care only about himself.

The reason number three is about emotional contagion. I am affected directly by the mood of others. Through mirror neurons and other mechanisms I pick up the moods of those around me and they have a direct effect on my own mood. Bring in front of me a person who radiates excitement and I feel more energetic myself. Bring me in the midst of miserable people and my mood drops. A human being is not an a island. Thus there can’t be an island of happiness in the midst of a sea of sadness.

When we see someone smiling, it makes us more happy. Scientist call it emotional contagion.

Fourthly, researchers show that when people do acts of kindness towards others it is many times the giver who gets a bigger boost in happiness than the receiver. As a social species our brain is wired to give us a boost of happiness when we are kind to others. In the same way that it is wired to give us a boost of happiness when we eat sugar. The difference is that the positive effect produced by good deeds lasts much longer.

But most deeply, we identify with other people. The closer they are to me the more their pains and joys are also my pains and joys. In my last post I described how having a child expands our identity from a person who cares only about oneself to a person for whom my own well-being and the well-being of the child are almost inseparable. But actually the same thing applies to some degree to all our relationships. My identity is more or less overlapping with all those people that are close to me. Therefore their joys and miseries affect me directly, as if they would be my own joys and miseries.

So a practical advice: If you visit the same cashiers in a shop every day, do something extra for them. Make them smile a few times and in the future your own happiness will receive a boost everytime you see them. And if you live with somebody, you better make sure that you think more about how to make him or her happy than you think about how he or she makes you happy. As we are more prone to notice our own good deeds this is the only strategy that can make a relationship sustainable, balanced and happy for both.

Being a human is about being with others. Our own well-being and happiness is entangled to our social relations in a number of ways. Even to the degree that our best bet in increasing our own happiness is to invest in the happiness of others.

It is paradoxical but it is true. The less you care about your own happiness and the more you care about the happiness of others, the more happy you are yourself.

Birth of a child – or when you expand from an individual into a duovidual

I haven’t updated this blog for a while because I was fully absorbed in one of the greatest miracles of my own personal life: The birth of my first child! To keep up with the philosophical intentions of this blog I will resist the temptation to proclaim to everyone how wonderful event this was, how the child is the cutest ever and how great it is to be a father! Instead I will use this opportunity to reflect the deep-going changes in identity and worldview that this event gives rise to.

In west we have an atomized view of the individual: I am separated from all the others. I ought to be faithful to what is inside of me, to my unique personality. In the end of the day it is my own responsibility to make myself happy, to look for my own interests and make sure I am living the life I want to live. Accordingly, I should be primarily interested in the maximization of my own personal happiness only.

"The so-called Western view of the individual" is about "an independent, self-contained, autonomous entity" - Markus & Kitayama

Having a child challenges all this. The little fellow is not just another person who I can use to increase my own happiness. In terms of identity and motivation he is quite much inseparable from myself. My interests and the baby’s interests is the same; what is good for him is what is good for me; what I want is that the baby feels good. My happiness is embedded in him, his fortunes and misfortunes influence my mood at least as strongly as my own fortunes and misfortunes.

So we can say that I have deeply transformed through becoming a father. Or more accurately, what is ’I’ has expanded. The individual I was before no longer exists: I have become a duovidual. The newborn has become part of my identity, part of what I see as myself.

There is nothing mystical or unusual in this. When the sense of belongingness in some social relationship becomes deep enough it makes better sense to think of the relationship as the functional unit of what it means to be myself. In fact, a historical look reveals that most of our history we human beings have been so deeply embedded in our social relationships that it has made better sense to talk about ”an interdependent view of the self” instead of the modern ”independent view of the self.” In fact, the word individual as referring to a person didn’t exist before the 18th century.

We humans are social animals, deeply embedded in and defined by our close social relationships. Nothing brings this fact more at home for a western individual than having a child. A child is born, the individual is dead: Long live the duovidual!

I haven’t updated this blog for a while because I was fully absorbed in one of the greatest miracles of my own personal life: The birth of my first child! To keep up with the philosophical intentions of this blog I will resist the temptation to proclaim to everyone how wonderful event this was, how the child is the cutest ever and how great it is to be a father! Instead I will use this opportunity to reflect the deep-going changes in identity and worldview that this event gives rise to.

In west we have an atomized view of the individual: I am separated from all the others. I ought to be faithful to what is inside of me, to my unique personality. In the end of the day it is my own responsibility to make myself happy, to look for my own interests and make sure I am living the life I want to live. Accordingly, I should be primarily interested in the maximization of my own personal happiness only.

"The so-called Western view of the individual" is about "an independent, self-contained, autonomous entity" - Markus & Kitayama

Having a child challenges all this. The little fellow is not just another person who I can use to increase my own happiness. In terms of identity and motivation he is quite much inseparable from myself. My interests and the baby’s interests is the same; what is good for him is what is good for me; what I want is that the baby feels good. My happiness is embedded in him, his fortunes and misfortunes influence my mood at least as strongly as my own fortunes and misfortunes.

So we can say that I have deeply transformed through becoming a father. Or more accurately, what is ’I’ has expanded. The individual I was before no longer exists: I have become a duovidual. The newborn has become part of my identity, part of what I see as myself.

There is nothing mystical or unusual in this. When the sense of belongingness in some social relationship becomes deep enough it makes better sense to think of the relationship as the functional unit of what it means to be myself. In fact, a historical look reveals that most of our history we human beings have been so deeply embedded in our social relationships that it has made better sense to talk about ”an interdependent view of the self” instead of the modern ”independent view of the self.” In fact, the word individual as referring to a person didn’t exist before the 18th century.

We humans are social animals, deeply embedded in and defined by our close social relationships. Nothing brings this fact more at home for a western individual than having a child. A child is born, the individual is dead: Long live the duovidual!

What are the ways that a life can be good? There are three of them

What makes a life good? The question is quite broad, we can admit that. One might answer by listing nice things; a cappuccino at a pleasant café on a Sunday afternoon, a gathering of good friends at the summer cottage and so forth. But there is also a deeper question: What do we mean by good life anyway? Or rather, what are the ways that a life can be good?

This question has haunted me but only when I read Dan Haybron’s book The Pursuit of Unhappiness did I find an answer that would appeal to me. He suggested that there would be essentially three different ways that a life could be good and these dimensions are well-being, morality and aesthetics. Let’s look what is meant by them.

Firstly life can be good simply by feeling good from my point of view. So we could say that a good life is a life that is good for me. A good life is a life that we have a positive feeling about. Some might call this happiness but I feel that it is a too narrow concept. Well-being covers better the broad array of ways through which a life can feel good for a person. In any case, one’s own well-being is a quite straight-forward way through which one’s life can be good.

But we can also say that someone’s life is good from the moral point of view. A certain life can be good disregarding one’s own feelings about it if one has been able to make a positive contribution to the world through one’s actions. Someone might sacrifice his or her own happiness for the sake of others and thus decrease the goodness of that life from the well-being perspective. At the same time, however, that life has reached a certain nobleness as regards morality.

Thirdly, the life of a person can be aesthetically pleasing. We can read a tragic story of someone who suffered immensely within his or her life, did the wrong choices and caused misery to those around him or her. This life might not be good from the well-being perspective nor from the moral perspective. Yet there might still be some aesthetic value in the life; it might demonstrate a certain tragic beauty.

It is easy to see that these three ways to look at good life are independent from each other. The same life can be good within one perspective but lacking in others. We can demonstrate this by looking at four persons, let’s call them Arthur, Bertha, Cecilia and David.

Arthur is an arrogant guy who knows how to make the life pleasant for himself but at the same time doesn’t care at all about the well-being of others. For him others are just instruments to be used for his own pleasures. His life might (although even this can be doubted) be good from the first perspective but bad from the second and indifferent from the third.

Bertha, in turn, has given up everything to fulfill a duty of helping the poor in some remote corner of earth. For her this duty is a heavy burden and she is not really happy out there. In addition, her life might be so repetitious that it doesn’t make an aesthetically pleasing story either. But from the moral point of view we could say that she lived an exemplary life.

Cecilia is then this tragic girl who was born into poverty, was ill most of her life, stole things to come by and even murdered someone under obscure conditions before killing herself after the love of her life abandoned her. Happiness and morality were absent from her life. Yet there might still be some tremendous beauty present in her melancholic life story.

David then is mister Right. He always does the right thing; he has cool hobbies, engaging work, perfect wife and three kids to be proud of. In addition, he is friendly towards everybody, does voluntary work in some NGO and helps the poorer kids of the neighborhood to get a good education. His well-being is excellent and his morality intact. But nobody wants to make a movie out of his life because there is not a single flaw in it that would make it interesting. Aesthetically, his life is boring.

The question about good life is the most fundamental question that a human being can ask. When you ask it the next time remember that there are three different ways to answer it. What dimension is your strength and what is your weakness?

Is there a dimension that is missing from here? How do these three dimensions resonate with your life? Share your comment!What makes a life good? The question is quite broad, we can admit that. One might answer by listing nice things; a cappuccino at a pleasant café on a Sunday afternoon, a gathering of good friends at the summer cottage and so forth. But there is also a deeper question: What do we mean by good life anyway? Or rather, what are the ways that a life can be good?

This question has haunted me but only when I read Dan Haybron’s book The Pursuit of Unhappiness did I find an answer that would appeal to me. He suggested that there would be essentially three different ways that a life could be good and these dimensions are well-being, morality and aesthetics. Let’s look what is meant by them.

Firstly life can be good simply by feeling good from my point of view. So we could say that a good life is a life that is good for me. A good life is a life that we have a positive feeling about. Some might call this happiness but I feel that it is a too narrow concept. Well-being covers better the broad array of ways through which a life can feel good for a person. In any case, one’s own well-being is a quite straight-forward way through which one’s life can be good.

But we can also say that someone’s life is good from the moral point of view. A certain life can be good disregarding one’s own feelings about it if one has been able to make a positive contribution to the world through one’s actions. Someone might sacrifice his or her own happiness for the sake of others and thus decrease the goodness of that life from the well-being perspective. At the same time, however, that life has reached a certain nobleness as regards morality.

Thirdly, the life of a person can be aesthetically pleasing. We can read a tragic story of someone who suffered immensely within his or her life, did the wrong choices and caused misery to those around him or her. This life might not be good from the well-being perspective nor from the moral perspective. Yet there might still be some aesthetic value in the life; it might demonstrate a certain tragic beauty.

It is easy to see that these three ways to look at good life are independent from each other. The same life can be good within one perspective but lacking in others. We can demonstrate this by looking at four persons, let’s call them Arthur, Bertha, Cecilia and David.

Arthur is an arrogant guy who knows how to make the life pleasant for himself but at the same time doesn’t care at all about the well-being of others. For him others are just instruments to be used for his own pleasures. His life might (although even this can be doubted) be good from the first perspective but bad from the second and indifferent from the third.

Bertha, in turn, has given up everything to fulfill a duty of helping the poor in some remote corner of earth. For her this duty is a heavy burden and she is not really happy out there. In addition, her life might be so repetitious that it doesn’t make an aesthetically pleasing story either. But from the moral point of view we could say that she lived an exemplary life.

Cecilia is then this tragic girl who was born into poverty, was ill most of her life, stole things to come by and even murdered someone under obscure conditions before killing herself after the love of her life abandoned her. Happiness and morality were absent from her life. Yet there might still be some tremendous beauty present in her melancholic life story.

David then is mister Right. He always does the right thing; he has cool hobbies, engaging work, perfect wife and three kids to be proud of. In addition, he is friendly towards everybody, does voluntary work in some NGO and helps the poorer kids of the neighborhood to get a good education. His well-being is excellent and his morality intact. But nobody wants to make a movie out of his life because there is not a single flaw in it that would make it interesting. Aesthetically, his life is boring.

The question about good life is the most fundamental question that a human being can ask. When you ask it the next time remember that there are three different ways to answer it. What dimension is your strength and what is your weakness?

Is there a dimension that is missing from here? How do these three dimensions resonate with your life? Share your comment!