Post: Happy People and the Self+Other Centeredness Paradox

Everybody knows, you are either selfish or selfless, right? You can’t be both at the same time, can you? Not without some kind of internal conflict, at least. Wrong!

It turns out that not only can people hold supposedly contradictory views in their minds at the same time but that the same mental and emotional machinery that allows them to do this also makes them the happiest among us.
This also bodes well for their relationship satisfaction: For example, among those in each group who were married, 68 percent of those who gave self- and partner-focused advice reported that they always “feel loved in this marriage,” compared to 54 percent of partner-prioritizing individuals and 40 percent of self-focused people. This last number is lower than the 45 percent of marrieds who would give neither advice. A similar pattern persists for many areas of marriage, including sexual satisfaction and how much fun partners share together.

From: Are Most People Selfish, Selfless, or Both? by James McQuivey, Ph.D.

I launched the Born to Marry Project (B2M) to apply the tools of objective research to what is a potentially emotional as well as political topic. Marriage, because of its prominence in society as well as religion, draws its irrational supporters as well as opponents. The goal of B2M is to set those irrational arguments aside and see what the data tell us about some of our most fundamental human behaviors. If done right, the research will not only tell us about marriage, it will contribute to our overall understanding of the psychology of the urge to bond with others whether in social affiliation or in the more intimate bond of intimacy and marriage. This article, originally published in February of 2020 on Psychology Today via the very insightful Rob Henderson, is more academic than most of the fruits of B2M, but hopefully that doesn’t make it less accessible or useful. Read the article to learn a few important things:

  • We don’t actually have to choose between being self-centered or other-focused. In fact, about 25% of people prioritize both.
  • This undermines the idea of cognitive dissonance which most of us have learned shorthand in school, which claims that people can’t maintain competing beliefs or motivations without needing to abandon one over the other.
  • Instead, having the psychological machinery to care about both things also predicts much higher satisfaction with life and much higher happiness in marriage.
  • Those who believe that people will be socially or emotionally better off by reducing self-centeredness would be smart to instead work to increase other-centeredness which had a greater outcome on people’s personal wellbeing.

In marriage, this dual approach is preferable to the overly simple approach of completely focusing on your partner. Those people who do so are happier than the self-centered people, for sure, but lag in every indicator behind people who experience the world more completely as a synthesis of self+other centeredness. That’s a paradox worth achieving.

My takeaway is simple: If you want to be happier in life and certainly in marriage, cultivate the ability to appreciate every input, every sensation. Sometimes you learn best by centering in your own thoughts and experiences. Other times thinking of yourself first can get in the way of true learning and connection. If you learn to consciously integrate both senses of self+other centeredness simultaneously, the numbers suggest you will be happier and I have a hunch that others around you will be, too.

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