WRITING YOUR OWN PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE

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Self-centered vs. others-centered

 After working through Tables 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3, you should have a better overall view of the possible meanings of life, the possible purposes of life, and the possible personality characteristics. There is a meaningful distinction, however, between finding meaning in life and finding the meaning of life. For example, you might find meaning in life while making new friends, observing a beautiful sunset, being close to relatives, being good in sports, reading a good book, having a fantastic sex life, etc., but it is not likely that you will choose any of these activities as being your one ultimate purpose in life. Deciding in advance the major purpose(s) of your life is different from experiencing some additional meaning(s) in life as you go along. I'm suggesting that you decide what should be, the major purpose(s), the primary objective(s) of your life.

 In my opinion, there are two fundamentally different life goals: (1) personal happiness and (2) doing good for others, i.e. self-oriented or other-oriented. They are both very appealing values but, unfortunately, they usually take you in opposite directions. If you seek happiness in self-serving ways, you will miss many opportunities to serve others. The 42,000 children dying needlessly every day probably can't be saved without giving up much of your partying and material wealth. If you "love thy neighbor as thyself," as implied by the Golden Rule, you will surely miss out on a lot of luxury and frivolous fun. Becoming an effective helper or a scientist or an intelligent leader requires sacrifices. You can't go full steam both ways--recreation and commitment--at the same time; choices, and usually compromises, must be made (see Branden, 1980, and Wallach & Wallach, 1984). Now, some help in making this tough choice.

 I have asked hundreds of college students to answer this question for themselves:

 About 50% in 1970 used to say yes, in 1990 about 75% say yes, it is fair. Then I asked them to give their reasons for answering yes or no. I have summarized those reasons into ten statements so you can more carefully think through your reaction to being self-oriented or others-oriented. Indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree with these statements by rating each one from 1 to 5.

Statements

  1. To be so self-centered that I would forget the hungry, sick, uneducated, unhappy people in the world is rejecting the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). I could not live with myself and do this, since I consider one of the highest goals of life to be "...Love one another..." (John 15:12).

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

  2. The more advantages I have--or hope to have someday--the more obligated I am to give to others and to fight for equal opportunities for everyone. "From each according to his/her ability; to each according to his/her needs (communist motto)." "Don't just sit there in your hot tub and say, 'There's nothing I can do about the poor' (student comment)."

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

  3. It is only fair for me to share my resources with others until everyone has their basic needs met. "He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none..."(Lk 3:11). Frankly, I don't think I would freely (on my own) give up my advantages and luxuries, but I should vote for a government that would make me (and others) do what is right.

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

  4. I am very confused about this issue. I want to help others, but I don't know what to do. It is a terrible waste when people starve, or a good brain is neglected, but what can I, as an individual, do? I'd really like to know.

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

  5. Of course, everyone ideally should have an equal opportunity to have a good life. And, I should contribute to making this situation become a reality, but I think the system is pretty fair as it stands today. Consider all the taxes we pay in this country already. I have done and will do my fair share.

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

  6. I have never seriously considered this type of question--and frankly, I don't like being made uncomfortable and asked to respond to these rather one-sided, simplistic statements. You sound like a liberal.

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

  7. The problems of the poor are largely caused by poor governments and big business: bureaucracy, dictatorships, inflation, unemployment, mismanagement, greed of the people in power, etc. I certainly can't do anything about all the bad governments around the world.

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

  8. Do-gooders preaching about our obligations to the poor upset me. Let everybody take care of themselves. The poor have too many children and often don't even try to help themselves. They could get out of poverty if they wanted to. "The poor are always with us," the Bible says, so it must be God's will. People usually get what they deserve.

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

  9. I want to do well, to have "the good life," nice home, cars, luxuries, etc. In this country we have "freedom," which always results in some people having more than others. That's the way it has to be if we are free. Why should I suffer just because others are unhappy? Besides, our country couldn't possibly feed all the hungry in the world, educate everyone, care for all the sick, etc.

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

  10. My goal in life is to be happy, to have a good time. I care about others, yet I also have a right to whatever I can earn or achieve through my own honest efforts. I want to enjoy life. My first obligation is to see that my family and I have everything we want. I can't help others unless I am happy, so that comes first.

    Agree         Disagree
     1   2   3   4   5

 If you answered the basic question "no," you would be more likely to agree with the first 3 or 4 statements which agree with the Golden Rule. If you feel positive towards the basic question, you will agree more with self-centered statements of 5 to 10. These latter statements are the common rationalizations in our culture for not helping others in need; check to see if your answers reveal some of your self-excuses or escape mechanisms (as discussed by Bandura below).

 Obviously one could pursue both happiness (choices 7, 8, & 9 above) and the Golden Rule (choices 1, 2, & 3) on a part-time basis (and most of us do), or, if one were very fortunate, one might experience great happiness in life while helping others. The reverse is very unlikely, i.e. doing great good while primarily seeking personal enjoyment.

What is wrong with putting your happiness and financial success first? (i.e. get yours first, like trickle down economics.)

 You often hear comments like, "you have to look out for yourself" or "those people really know how to live...how to party" or "you have to be happy yourself before you can help others be happy." All are very common justifications for happiness. But, who is happiest, the person devoted to having fun or the person devoted to helping others? Rimland (1982) did a very simple experiment. Why don't you try it right now. List the 10 people you know best. Rate each one as either happy or unhappy. Then, rate each one as self-centered or others-centered. Rimland found that happy people were ten times more likely to be unselfish than selfish. I rest my case. It is strange that happiness comes to people who have decided not to seek it as their main purpose in life. It comes as a fringe benefit to helpers.

 There is accumulating evidence that striving for power, fame, wealth, and material goods--big parts of the "American Dream"--more than for good relationships, personal growth, and altruism is associated with more anxiety, more depression, and poorer general functioning (Kasser & Ryan, 1993). In short, materialism may be bad for your mental (and spiritual?) health. As Fromm (1976) observed, a focus on "having" distracts us from "being" our best person.

Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.
-Lao-tzu, 500 BC

The superior person thinks always of virtue; the common person thinks of comfort.
-Confucius

 Your choice between (1) happiness or wealth and (2) helping as your highest purpose could have a profound impact on your entire life. Keep in mind that few people are able to follow their highest values all the time; the caring person is selfish in some ways, and the dedicated hedonist occasionally helps others. However, without your highest value in the forefront of your consciousness, day by day, your life is not likely to be well directed. If selfish materialism continues to be your dominant value, try reading Lerner's (1995) The Politics of Meaning and Kozol's (1994) Amazing Grace (about the poverty and problems of poor children in this country).


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