【Atlantic】How to Be Less Self-Centered

新英文杂志 2022-09-23 06:30
Thinking of yourself as an observer is better for your happiness than obsessing over being observed.

One night several years ago, after filling up my car at a gas station and pulling away, I noticed a strange sound behind me in traffic—sort of a metallic clanking noise. It sounded to me like someone was dragging a muffler or bumper, so I started looking for the car to alert the driver. But no matter how fast or slow I moved, or where I turned, I couldn’t locate the car. At this point, I noticed people on the sidewalk pointing and laughing—at me. I stopped and found the gas hose still attached to my car. I immediately pulled out the hose and drove back to the gas station, where I was educated on the economics of breaking a gas pump.

My memory of that night is odd because I was judging the behavior of another person, who then turned out to be me. The absent-minded professor was some other guy. Philosophers might say that in these rare minutes, my “I-self” (the seer of things around me) and “me-self” (the one seen) were mentally separated.

This kind of separation is unnatural. Making it your permanent state of mind would be difficult and perhaps even undesirable. Each of us can, however, purposely change the balance of time we spend as observers and as the objects of observation—even without doing something as ridiculous as I did. And working to observe more than you think about being observed can be an excellent way to get happier.

When you look into a mirror, you see yourself almost as if you were two different people—one who sees, and one who is seen. That may sound confusing, but bear with me here, because both versions of you are important. As the philosopher William James explored in depth, you must be an observer of things around you to survive and thrive, but you must also observe yourself and be observed by others to have any consistent sense of self-concept and self-image. Without observing, you would get hit by a car or starve. Without being observed, you would have no memory, history, or sense of why you do what you do.

The trick for well-being is balancing your I-self and me-self. But most of us spend too much time being observed and not enough time observing. We think constantly about ourselves and how others see us; we look in every mirror; we check our mentions on social media; we obsess over our identities.

This brings trouble. Research has shown, for example, that focusing on the world outside yourself is linked to happiness, while focusing on yourself and how others see you can lead to unstable moods. Your happiness goes up and down like a yo-yo, depending on whether you see yourself positively or negatively in a given moment. This instability is hard to bear; no wonder self-absorption is associated with anxiety and depression.

Seeing yourself as an object rather than a subject can also lower your performance in ordinary tasks. Researchers have found in learning experiments that people are less likely to try new things when they are focused on themselves. This makes sense: When you pay too much attention to yourself, you ignore a lot about the outside world.

The idea that people should spend more time thinking about the world than about themselves predates modern science and philosophy. For example, it is a core focus of Zen Buddhism, which is fundamentally an attitude of pure outward observation. “Life is an art,” the Zen master D. T. Suzuki wrote in 1934, “and like perfect art it should be self-forgetting.” My colleague Robert Waldinger, a psychiatry professor and Zen priest, explained it to me via email in this way: “When I’m aware of the self I call ‘Bob,’ it’s me in relation to the world. When that falls away (in meditation, or when I’m standing in awe of a waterfall), the sense of a self that is separate from everything else subsides and it’s just sounds and sensations.” 

By Arthur C. Brooks

SEPTEMBER 22, 2022 | 849 words