The Joy of Thinking about Other People

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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18 thoughts on “The Joy of Thinking about Other People

  1. Paul, Great post. Thinking about others and helping others does so much for us. It’s always a great feeling inside when I’ve been able to look past myself and think of someone else or help out in some way.

  2. The Buddha gave a simple yardstick for such things – motives. I find if my motives for helping another person are self-interested it never gives anybody much benefit at the end. If I am generous just because it seems like the right thing to do, then the result is usually beneficial but no matter the result my motives give me a step forward on the path.

    Paul, the addiction produces a narrow-minded definition of self-interest. I spent a TON of time conniving about the next drink. How to sneak it without others finding out (what a joke that was)? How to slip a double shot into my drink and a single into everyone else’s? All of that ‘stinking thinking’ as they call it in AA, continues beyond our sobriety if not addressed. I think that is the best definition of ‘dry drunk’ – somebody that still acts from the addiction even without the alcohol intake. I wonder if, in fact, the substitution of sugar for alcohol produces something like that? The ethanol molecule and the molecule for high-fructose corn syrup are identical in bio-chemical actions only the HFCS does not give the buzz that the alcohol does. Some things to ponder.

    1. Hi Doug, I agree that addiction and increased self-interest go hand in hand. I’ve seen how people can have almost all the symptoms of alcohol addiction even though they are no longer drinking alcohol.

  3. Hi Paul,
    I agree with you, in life there are better thing to do than navel gazing. In the past I never gave it much thought and as a kind of ironic statement I claimed that Mother Theresa was one of the most selfish persons in the world because all her of initiatives awarded her with more personal happiness. But in the last year I spent money but mostly time to help several persons and I don’t regret it a single bit.

    1. Hi I-Nomad, I’ve found that meditation and general mindfulness practice are great tools for moving away from an obsession with self. I do believe that we can teach ourselves to be compassionate internally, and this will lead to compassionate action in real life.

  4. Paul, I agree that some are born with an empathetic heart while others need to earn it. Each post you write on this vein convinces me to give meditation a proper effort, so maybe I’ll expand mine in the process. I’m not without, but I do hold back when maybe I should be jumping in. Fear?

    1. I suppose a lot of us come from a culture where holding back is encouraged – especially when it comes to men. I think most of us are more compassionate as children ( although we can be little monsters at times as well), but we get harder as we enter adulthood.

  5. Hi Paul–

    Did you ever watch the TV show “Friends”? There was a great episode where they had a competition to see if they could be truly altruistic. Hilarity ensues, of course, and in the end they realize that they always feel good when they do nice things for other people, so they can’t be entirely altruistic.

    Anyway, thanks for the lovely post and the reminder to get out of my own head a bit tonight. I needed that! (Seriously!) 🙂

    1. I’m not actually a huge fan of Friends, but a couple of my previous girlfriends were. Strangely enough I did think about that Friends episode when I was putting together this post; the episode where the blonde haired girl (can’t remember her name) got a wasp to sting her to prove how altruistic she was.
      I also need constant reminding about this issue, because it is not something that comes naturally.

  6. Paul a smashing post and one which has probably got all of us thinking about whether we think enough of others in our thoughts, actions and deeds. I think my truthful answer about myself would be no.

    “Historically I’ve been more likely to revel in people’s failures than cheer on their successes, but this type of Schadenfreude is not good for me at all”

    A lot of us go through that stage in life, I think we come out of it when we find happiness and contentment within ourselves. Reaching our ambitions or being content that you’ve tried but failed to achieve your goals is probably what helps to iron selfish thinking out of our minds. It’s easier to think good and help other people when you feel good about yourself.

    1. Hi Martyn, I think you are right about the connection between Schadenfreude and lack of happiness in my own life – misery likes company as they say. During my years of being a human failure I resented hearing about other people I knew who were doing well – it could almost fell like they were doing it to make me look bad 🙂

  7. They say when you are feeling sad you should do something nice for others. Or that you should start the day by doing something good for someone else, whether it is a nice email or something equally simple. And I couldn’t agree more.

    Did you realize that you would be doing something nice by posting about this topic? 😀


    1. Hi Lani, I can well believe that doing something nice for someone else can help combat melancholy. If I spend too much time just thinking about me there is every reason to be sad 🙂

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