I’ve a tendency to be self-absorbed. I love my family of course, but the majority of my thoughts will be concerned with my own wants and desires. I know from past experience that this self-absorption is the wrong way to approach life; real joy comes from thinking about others. I’m not sure if my selfishness is due to nature or nurture, but I do know that it is something that can be changed – although in my case this change has involved a lot of ‘two steps forward and one step back again’ (sometimes it even feels more like three steps back).
My First Experience with the Joy of Thinking about Others
During my early twenties I messed up my life big time; I reached a mental low due to alcohol addiction. I ended up living in a residential treatment programme for a year where there was a requirement for twice weekly counselling sessions. I felt sceptical about the benefits of spending more time talking about my problems; I was already going to about three AA meeting a day and we had daily group meetings in the house as well. Luckily my counsellor was of the same opinion; she felt that what I needed was to think about somebody else for a change (this is the same person who introduced me to the book Skallagrigg – read here). This counsellor suggested that voluntary work might be the best for me, and it turned out she was 100% right.
I began spending time with a guy who was the same age as me, but whose problems made mine seem trivial. His name was also Paul, and he was born with severe learning difficulties. I’m a bit ashamed to say but the first time I saw him my impulse was to run in the opposite direction. Paul was completely dependent on other people, and almost every part of his body looked wrong. The first few times I needed to force myself to visit Paul, but after awhile I began to look forward to our time together. I’d take him out somewhere for a couple of hours and at the end of it I’d be so full of joy. I’d come back from these visits and people would comment that I looked so happy – my face would be glowing. I’ve no idea if my visits made any real difference to Paul’s life, but these few hours out visiting different places had a huge impact on mine. It was because of this experience that I trained as a nurse.
The Joy of Thinking about Others
Thinking about others is not about trying to be a saint, and it’s not about wanting to save the world; after all the more I do it the happier I will be. I’ve found that it is important to acknowledge that I’m the real beneficiary of this good will or else I could develop some type of saviour complex.
I’ve found that it can be just as important to internally generate good will for others as it is to actually take actions. This is because when we do good things for the wrong motives we don’t tend to get the same benefit. If we spend more time thinking about other people though we genuinely want to help them, and we’ll find that we are doing good without thinking about it too much. This good will can be produced by Metta (loving kindness) meditation practices. Now I know some people will scoff at the idea that meditating on loving kindness brings benefits, but it really can open our hearts and encourage us to do good.
One of the most rewarding benefits of thinking more than others is that we can develop sympathetic joy. The ability to genuinely feel happiness when hearing about the triumphs of others is an unbeatable human asset; it means there will always be something to feel good about. Historically I’ve been more likely to revel in people’s failures then cheer on their successes, but this type of Schadenfreude is not good for me at all.
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