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Our Culture of Narcissism Fosters Misery. Here’s Why.

Our Culture of Narcissism Fosters Misery. Here’s Why.

“You be you.”

“Follow your heart.”

“Pursue your dreams.”

“Be yourself.”

Such are the individualistic mantras of the 21st century, which continually call us to look inward for our “true selves” and lasting happiness. Historian and social critic Christopher Lasch called this a culture of narcissism. But does happiness truly come from within?

Thaddeus Williams explores this question in his book (aptly titled Don’t Follow Your Heart), where he points out that—despite the contemporary emphasis on self-discovery—focused individualism demeans true happiness. It’s in forgetting about the self, he says, that true freedom lies.

Williams cites several thinkers to make his point. He quotes Albert Einstein (“A person first starts to live when he can live outside himself”) and expands the idea to a principle he calls Einstein’s law:

The more you revere something more awesome than yourself, the more alive you become. [But] the more you revere yourself as the most awesome being in existence, the more awful your life becomes.

“We are hardwired,” Williams writes, “to function best in a state of awe.” In fact, we naturally live the principle of Einstein’s law: trekking through Arizona to view the Grand Canyon, driving to Ontario to stand beside Niagara Falls, and hiking up mountains to see stunning sunsets. We naturally seek out grandeur, and—in the face of that grandeur—we can forget about ourselves.

Alongside Einstein’s Law, Williams notes the close connection between marketed self-focus and rising levels of unhappiness. In the 1960s, Williams says, it first became “trendy” to view the constitutional “pursuit of happiness” as “highly individualistic, subjective, and psychological.” Around the same time, crime and broken relationships began to spike: From 1960 to 2000, the divorce rate doubled, teen suicide tripled, violent crime quadrupled, and the prison population quintupled. And while correlation is not causation, the connection might be telling. Williams quotes neuroscientist Kevin Corcoran: “‘It seems the more we desire happiness [and] pursue it … the less happy and more depressed we become.’”

Beyond this, Williams explains that several scientists have discovered that, when faced with “‘elicitors of awe,’” people tend to become “more generous, attuned to the needs of others, and caring toward the natural world.” Awestruck people also gain a higher level of cognition and are less at risk of depression. “Want a happier, fuller life?” Williams asks. “The science is clear: go be awestruck by something bigger than yourself.”

Fittingly, Williams’ findings squared perfectly with something I have experienced in my own life. Around the time I picked up his book, I had started choosing clothes based on how I felt that day. Moody and contemplative signaled a heavy cardigan and maroon dress. Academic and preppy meant a short blue dress with a clean-cut sweater. And spontaneous and active signaled jeans and a casual top.

It only took me a couple weeks to realize that—contrary to what I’d assumed from the online obsession with clothing aesthetics—trying to analyze myself every morning was exhausting. Rather than simply choosing an outfit and spending the day intentionally focused on the people and things around me, I was forced to start my day by reaching inward and spending the day in a persistent pursuit of self-expression. Ultimately, it made me miserable, and I realized the best way to be happy was to forget about myself entirely.

Contrast this with several weeks later, when a photograph of Giuseppe Sanmartino’s The Veiled Christ sent me reeling into awe. The sculpture was astounding: From a single block of marble, Sanmartino had carved an incredibly convincing man and veil. The stone was smooth, the clothing realistic, and the visual layers unlike anything I had seen before. Seeing that single work of art made me feel more self-forgetful than I had in days, and—reflecting on the experience later—I realized that I had felt more joyful than I had been in weeks. In being amazed, I could forget about myself—I could focus my attention outward and experience beauty rather than the fickle workings of my own consciousness.

Veiled Christ (Italian: Cristo velato)

Of course, clothing and statues are small examples, but they point to the larger problem with “be yourself” ideology. Contrary to mainstream thought, the path to happiness does not lie in increased self-awareness or introspection (though, given the proper place, those things can be healthy). Rather, happiness arises naturally from forgetting the self—at experiencing the truly wondrous.

Here’s the point: If you want to be miserable, focus on yourself. You’ll find that—paradoxically—the most miserable people are the people who work incessantly to actualize their own happiness. And, again paradoxically, the happiest people are those who forget entirely about themselves.

For all post-modernity’s philosophizing about joy, our #bestlife is not a product of inordinate introspection or incessant self-actualization. Instead, it’s an outgrowth of the willingness to forget the self in wonder and awe.

And wonderfully (as Williams points out) the world holds no limit of grandeur; there’s no “scarcity of awesomeness.” Everywhere we turn (toward the grass in our yard or the lilt of a loved one’s voice) there is something we don’t understand—something that must make us marvel. We can pursue the beauties of our world in deep, self-forgetful joy, knowing that focusing outward moves us toward true joy.

Image credits: public domain (featured image); “Cappella Sansevero” (veiled Christ) by David Sivyer on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0. Image cropped.

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  • Avatar
    Daniel Paul Dal Monte
    May 28, 2024, 11:05 pm

    Thank you for the welcome reminder!

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  • Avatar
    Jcastner
    June 4, 2024, 8:31 pm

    In total agreement. While it is important to take care of yourself, we are incouraged to focus on others and the grandure of creation before our temperal thoughts about what might make us " Happy". To focus on yourself blinds you to the beauty of our wonderful world and robs a person of the deep satisfaction of helping others that need your wisdom or your hand.

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