“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
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.
[Read: You’ve probably seen yourself in your memories]
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.”
In some traditions, the I-self is not just a ticket to happiness but a connection to the divine. Hindus seek to reveal their atman, which is characterized by an innate state of awareness in which one witnesses the world but does not get embroiled in it. Atman is considered a direct link to Brahman, the ultimate divine reality. This is consistent with Jesus’s teaching that “anyone who wishes to follow me must deny himself.”
You will never eradicate your me-self, nor should you want to. But you can certainly increase your happiness by adopting conscious practices that lower the amount of time you spend in an objectified state. Three conscious habits can help us transcend this tendency.
1. Avoid your own reflection.
Mirrors are inherently attractive, as are all mirrorlike phenomena, such as social-media mentions. But mirrors are not your friend. They help even the healthiest people objectify themselves; for people with self-image-related maladies, they can be sheer misery. In 2001, researchers studying people with body dysmorphic disorder (those who think obsessively about perceived flaws in their bodies) found that the longest time the participants spent looking in the mirror (and thus focusing on the source of their distress) was 3.4 times longer than the longest mirror-gazing session of those who didn’t have the disorder.
Take steps to make the version of yourself that the world sees less likely to pop up in front of you. You might consider literally removing all but one or two mirrors from your home and making a rule to not look at yourself more than once in the morning. I would also recommend turning off your social-media notifications, adopting an absolute ban against Googling yourself, and turning off self-view on Zoom.
2. Judge not.
To judge is to take observation of the world and turn it inward. For example, if you say, “This weather is awful,” you have just made a judgment about your own feelings—meaning you are now observing yourself (and assigning a negative mood to something outside your control).
Making judgments about the world is normal and necessary; we need to do it in order to make cost-benefit decisions. However, many judgments are unhelpful and gratuitous. Do you really need to decide that the song you just heard is stupid? Try instead to observe more around you without regard to your opinions. Start by making more purely observational statements rather than values-based ones. Reframe “This coffee is terrible” as “This coffee has a bitter flavor.”
3. Stand in awe.
In his research, the UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner focuses on the experience of awe, which he defines as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” Among its many benefits, Keltner has found, awe diminishes the sense of self. For example, in one study, he and his colleagues asked people to consider either an experience in nature that was very beautiful or a time when they felt pride. Those who thought about nature were twice as likely as those who thought about pride to say that they felt small or insignificant, and nearly a third more likely to say that they felt the presence of something greater than themselves.
[Read: To get out of your head, get out of your house]
Spend more time enjoying things that amaze you. My friend and fellow happiness specialist Gretchen Rubin visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art almost daily. I listen to Bach’s music every single day and never fail to feel awe. Incorporating awe into your daily life might mean making sure you see the sunset as often as you can or studying astronomy—or whatever it is that blows your mind.
One last exercise you might try if you have a free day: Use it to wander. In one famous Zen koan (a story that requires philosophical interpretation), a junior monk sees an older monk walking and asks him where he is going. “I am on pilgrimage, following the wind,” the senior monk says. “What are you on pilgrimage for?” the junior monk asks. “I don’t know,” the elder answers, adding, “Non-knowing is most intimate.”
Some of the most intimate experiences in life come when you can observe your journey without expectation of some external payoff. Dedicate just one day to being like this senior monk. Start the morning by saying, “I do not know what this day will bring, but I will accept it.” Go through the day focusing on things outside yourself, resisting judgment, and avoiding anything self-referential. You could get in your car and go on a day trip with no set destination. But if you buy gas, do remember to put the hose back on the pump.
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