To be happier, think beyond yourself

It’s natural to assume that the more we focus on ourselves and our own problems, the happier we’ll be. But consider this: in a study of language used by poets, it was found that those who used the words I, me, my, and mine were much more likely to commit suicide than those who used we, us, our, and ours.

In fact, poets who killed themselves used self-referential words more and more often as they approached their premature deaths, while those who lived long lives used we-words more and more often.

This relates to the problem of rumination, where our own thinking acts to amplify our suffering. Many of our thoughts containing I, me, my, and mine are connected with feelings of distress: I’m worried about this, I don’t like that. No one cares about me or considers my feelings. And so on.

“I” thoughts reinforce our sense of aloneness. We see ourselves as broken, as worse than others, and therefore separate from them.

Thoughts of “we” connect us, reminding us of our common humanity. Our individual sufferings are seen as being shared by others, and as being part of the difficulties we all have in being human. Our sufferings are not a sign of us being broken, but of us belonging to a greater whole. Our sufferings connect us with others, rather than pushing us into a sense of separateness.

Cultivating compassion is one way of moving from I-thinking to we-thinking, and research in fact shows that compassionately considering and responding to the sufferings of others brings us many benefits, including becoming happier, healthier, more self-confident, less self-critical, and more emotionally resilient.

If it seems paradoxical that taking on board others’ sufferings can make us healthier and happier, this is simply a reflection of the fact that we forget that we are intrinsically social beings, that we are therefore more fulfilled when we connect with others, and that we also gain a sense of meaning and purpose from helping others.

Compassion can be cultivated. And it’s a simple thing: compassion is simply kindness meeting suffering. In compassion meditation we first connect in a kindly way with ourselves, and then extend our concern to others.

Practicing in this way trains us to take into account not just our own well-being, but that of others, too. This has the effect of reducing the amount of self-focused rumination we do, decreasing our tendency to freak out, and increasing our happiness.

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Scare the Heck Out of Your “Self” (

Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman explains the value in ‘realizing your selflessness.’

People often ask me, “Why did Buddha have to be such a downer? Obviously nirvana is a happy, cheerful state. So why didn’t he just call it ‘bliss’ or something? Why did he have to label the reality he discovered with negative words like ‘voidness,’ ’emptiness,’ and ‘selflessness’?” When people respond negatively to these terms, it’s often because they’re worried that the words imply they are going to die, disappear, or go crazy in their attempts to seek enlightenment. And that’s exactly why the Buddha called reality by those names. He did it on purpose, to liberate you! Why? Because the only thing that’s frightened by the word “selflessness” is the artificially constructed, unreal, pretend self. It doesn’t really exist. That pseudo-self seems to quiver and quake because the habit that makes it seem real wants to keep its hold on you. So if you’re seeking happiness and freedom, then you should want to scare the heck out of your “self” — you want to scare it right out of your head!

Actually, it is constantly scaring the heck out of you. Your “self” is always busy terrorizing you. You have a terrorist in your own brain, coming out of your own instincts and culture, who is pestering you all the time. “Don’t relax too much,” it is saying, “you’ll get stepped on. A bug will bite you. Someone will be nasty to you. You’ll get passed by, abused, sick. Don’t be honest. Pretend. Because if you’re honest, they’ll hurt you.” And it’s ordering you, “Be my slave. Do what I tell you to do. Keep me installed up here at this very superficial level of the brain where I sit in my weird Woody Allen-type cockpit. Because I’m in control.” Your falsely perceived, fixated, domineering self is precisely what’s getting between you and a fulfilling life.

. . .

“Realizing your selflessness” does not mean that you become a nobody, it means that you become the type of somebody who is a viable, useful somebody, not a rigid, fixated, I’m-the-center-of-the-universe, isolated-from-others somebody. You become the type of somebody who is over the idea of a conceptually fixated and self-created “self,” a pseudo-self. You become the type of somebody who is content never to be quite that sure of who you are – always free to be someone new, somebody more.

That’s the whole point of selflessness. If you don’t know exactly who you are all the time, you’re not sick, you’re actually in luck, because you’re more realistic, more free, and more awake! You’re being too intelligent to be stuck inside some frozen mask of personality! You’ve opened up your wisdom, and you’ve realized that “knowing who you are” is the trap – an impossible self-objectification. None of us knows who we really are. Facing that and then becoming all that we can be – astonishing, surprising, amazing – always fresh and new, always free to be more, brave enough to become a work in progress, choosing happiness, open-mindedness, and love over certitude, rigidity, and fear – this is realizing selflessness!

Reprinted with permission from “Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well” published by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam.

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