There’s a spectrum of people who care too much about other people at one end, and at the other end there are those who care too much about themselves. I’ll call it the self-others spectrum. The former works so hard to help others, constantly giving, that they wear themselves out into a husk. Common examples are overworked mothers and exhausted charity and social workers. The latter are selfish bores, who dominate conversations with uninteresting stories, let everybody else do the work while they laze about, and are generally disliked by society.
Being overtly selfish is less common because it’s an undesirable trait, so you get socially punished for it. However, over-givers get all sorts of social rewards. They’re nice to be around. They help you out. This leads to them being liked and respected. Their contributions lead to them having solid support networks and good friends.
The problem is that if you give too much and don’t think of yourself, for many it leads to a sadder life. You don’t enjoy what’s going on; you’re just doing it because it makes others happy.
I definitely had an era of my life where I went too far on this end of the spectrum, but I think I’ve found a way to balance both. First off, I find people who like what I like. Second, when I’m in a social situation, I ask myself this question, “How do I make this interaction awesome for them and me.” Not how do I make them happy. Not how do I enjoy this situation. How do we both enjoy it.
This has fantastic results, because you aren’t giving too much of yourself away. You’re not wasting your precious life on things that you don’t like, but you’re also bringing that gift to others as well. It’s a classic win-win, and a great way to stay at a healthy part of the self-others spectrum, making your loved ones and yourself happy at the same time. Try it out. Think of the next person you’re going to hangout with and ask yourself, “How will I make this interaction awesome for them and me?” See how it transforms people-pleasing into creating a shared joy.
Wanting others to like and admire you is a natural human drive that practically everybody has. Many times when people have too little of the drive it becomes a disorder, like psychopathy. However, it is not approved of by our society, and so, ironically, we try to be approved of by society by not consciously or outwardly trying to get approval. The problem with this is that since we’re not aware of this drive, or won’t look at it directly at least, we often end up doing things to please people instead of doing what we actually want without even realizing it.
I reiterate: it’s fine to try to make others like you. It’s just that it’s better to do it consciously. This blog is called deliberate happiness for a reason. If you think about pleasing people as one of your goals and pursue it on purpose, you can find paths that lead to a helluva lot more flourishing than bumbling about with your eyes closed and hoping for the best.
The main method I’ve seen work for this is to do what you enjoy then find people who like and respect you for doing those things. Do you like cheesy jokes, relaxing, and comedy movies? Find others who do too! Do you like anime, video games, and computers? There are sub-communities where your obsession will be a badge of honor! How about reading fantasy novels, talking about politics over coffee, and reading quietly on the beach? You can find people who think that’s the coolest thing ever. Many communities might give you a funny look if you want to dance naked around a campfire under the stars, but some will love your exuberance and come join you.
So we have a way to make sure we have the human need of belonging met while still doing what makes us most happy, but how do we know what we actually enjoy? It feels like this should be an easy question. I mean, can’t you just notice what you like or not? It’s tricky though, because we subconsciously are trying to impress. It’s respectable to like Shakespeare, classical music, and the classics. It’s cool to like parties, travel, and certain drinks. Sometimes you might genuinely like these things, but often, you find them boring or stressful, but are doing it to get some social points. How do you distinguish between these two states?
One tool I like is to imagine a scenario (ideally a real one, but you can also just use your imagination) where nobody will ever know that you did it. You’ll never be able to tell them, share it on social media, put it on your bookshelf, or any other way to communicate that it happened. It’s just you. Do you still do it?
A common example is reading the classics. If nobody ever knew you did it, would you really read Shakespeare, written in such a different English that each sentence takes forever to parse? Or would you watch an amazing drama on Netflix? Sure, Shakespeare makes timeless commentary on the human experience, but so does Game of Thrones, and it’s so much more entertaining, let alone a lot less sexist and racist.
This is by far not a comprehensive guide to living the life you actually want, but I hope it provides a couple of tools for you. And don’t just read this, nod your head in agreement, then move on. Take a moment, right now, and take five minutes to apply it to your life. Imagine what you would do if nobody would ever know, do it, then find people who like and admire you for doing so.
An important concept I’ve learned over the years is that when you are setting and achieving multiple goals, you can often focus on one and another will happen naturally as a byproduct. This way you don’t have to really think about this other goal or have it influence your decisions, taking off some mental load.
Take for example making the world a better place and being respected by your community. (Being admired by others is a very common drive, though our culture discourages admitting it, either to others or ourselves.) So you’re in a situation where you really want to be well thought of by your parents and friends, but you also see the suffering in the world and want to help. You don’t have to pursue each separately. If you work hard on compassionate endeavors, you will naturally gain the respect of your community. Altruism is an admired trait.
The general principle is that when you are pursuing what you want in one domain, some others will often take care of themselves. Take a moment to think of how this might apply to your life, and see if you can ignore some side goals, trusting that they’ll come about naturally while you move towards your main ones.
I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Charity Science Health and Charity Entrepreneurship.