The Happiness of Other People Does Not Necessarily Make Us Happy

Have you ever felt envy when you find out about your neighbour buying a new sport car or anger when you saw your best friend was leaving with his family for an exotic vacation, while you work hard to pay your bills?  An old proverb says: “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” In my opinion, a real friend is one who can enjoy our happiness. It is noble to help people in need, especially when it does not involve physical effort, financial cost or legal implications and helping others allows us to feel important and needed.  When we help someone, we also build our self-esteem and create an image of ourselves as a “helpful person”.

Politicians, businessmen and celebrities like to share photos showing them surrounded by children, or “leak” information about the amounts they donate to charities. Helping people in need is undoubtedly a virtue, but it is not a value in itself.  The chance that a homeless person or an orphaned child might threaten our wellbeing or our social or economic position is very limited. On the other hand, helping those who are better off may be seen as an attempt to get access to them and thereby to get some advantage for ourselves. In psychology, there is a concept of cognitive dissonance, which describes a sense of discomfort we experience when the outcomes of our actions or the way in which we see ourselves is contradicted by the way other people perceive us.  Most people like to think about themselves positively and they want the external world to reinforce that self-image. In fact, our creation of self-image and the way we present ourselves to the external world is one of the most revealing human traits. We usually do this by using external signs such as body language, the way we dress, our gestures, or changes in our tone of voice. People are rarely forthcoming about their problems and struggles on Facebook, whereas we are very willing to share information about our successes and about the things that give us pleasure.

Public Relations specialists know that the art of image creation can be learned, but what if the new image we are creating is not congruent with our self-image? How do we reduce the cognitive dissonance? Actually, constructive thinking can also be learned, but it requires time, effort and determination. In turn, what we focus on will become more important to us, expanding and becoming more accessible. At the same time, when we are thinking about our Self and about our experiences in a positive way, we are subconsciously creating the ground in which these positive thoughts and impressions will grow even stronger. On the other hand, feelings of anger, hatred or envy will more likely form waves of negative experiences, feelings and reactions.  Thus, if you want to think about yourself as a helpful person, behaving in a helpful way is not enough. This is because there is actually a connection between the way think about ourselves and our actions in the external world.  What this means is that our ability actually to perform meaningful or genuine acts of kindness also depends on the way in which we regard ourselves.  It is only when we are able unconditionally to love ourselves and accept ourselves as we are, with all our various strengths and weaknesses, that we become able to act genuinely without self-doubt or concern about our “real” motivation.

“Love your neighbour as you love yourself”:   do not judge, do not criticize, do not compare. We can see today how difficult this seemingly simple command really is. It is no easy task to behave with humility, or to accept negative responses from other people, especially when we do not receive the gratitude we were expecting.. The world is not a fair or safe place. When trying to change the world we must begin by recognizing that we are doomed to some degree of failure because neither the weather nor the opinion of other people can easily be changed. On the other hand, we can change ourselves and the way we think and see the world. In a few years, today’s children and youth will become leaders, parents, and educators. The sooner we are able to teach young people to think about themselves more positively, the more it will help them to control their feelings and behaviours, and the more likely they will be to achieve better results. Remember, if we are able to help others unconditionally, the more we are likely to build a stronger and safer society, one that is based on mutual respect and a sense of responsibility.

I use a program, IDEAL ME, to help young people, especially teens, develop a better understanding of themselves and particularly of their strengths and weaknesses, while also helping to improve their emotional and social interactions with peers, teachers, and family. The program provides training for young people during which they practice recognizing and regulating their feelings, solve problems in a constructive way and generally improve their overall self-esteem. IDEAL ME is meant to be a proactive way for parents and educators to help children address the many challenges that are awaiting them in a world that has become increasingly complex and often increasingly harsh.