The Sinner, The Narcissist, and The Megalomaniac
Unhappiness via Self-Absorption
Self-isolation has prompted many of us to think more about questions that we are curious about or are important to us. One of which for me is, “How do some people become consistently unhappy?”
In his book “The Conquest of Happiness”, Bertrand Russell calls out some observations on causes of unhappiness and it starts with some types of self-absorption. Being human, it is not uncommon to feel self-absorbed at certain times in our lives. But when we recognise ourselves in these types, it is worth considering whether this self-absorption is getting in the way of happiness.
Russell named this archetype “the sinner” because this type of people are those perpetually displeased with themselves due to the frequent suspicion that they might be sinning. If they are religious, they interpret this as a disapproval from a higher entity. Even if they are not religious, the concept of sin is deeply woven into the fabric of Abrahamic cultures.
In such cultures, the notion of sin is believed to serve as a moral compass. Unfortunately for many, the concept of sin induces a life-long cycle of guilt. People engage in activities they find pleasurable and end up feeling guilty regardless of whether the activity has done any harm. In this way, guilt becomes a way of life. This is one that I, for the lack of a better term, am guilty of. I have felt guilty for pursuing ambition, for abandoning ambition, for stating an opinion, for not stating an opinion, for saying no to pleasure, for saying yes to pleasure, and for many other things that also ultimately resulted in positive outcomes. I have even felt guilty for feeling guilty (talk about mastery of guilt), until there came a time that I thought, “hang on, why am I feeling this?” For me and others in this category, the first step towards happiness is liberating the mind from the oppression of guilt. This first step consists of learning not to take everything too serious all the time, learning to laugh at oneself, and embracing the liberating freedom of well-timed silliness. In my experience, it takes years to un-train the constant feeling of guilt but it is amazing and worthwhile journey.
According to Russell, the Narcissist has a habit of admiring himself and wishes to be admired. In his time, this could be someone who pays homage to the arts by becoming an arts student without really enjoying the journey of learning. Rather, they seek to be admired with the resulting network, diploma or art displays. In our time with our obsession of crafting the perfect online persona and pretend that it is us, it could be when travelling, dining or hanging out with people is more for posting selfies than enjoying the activity.
While validation is nice to receive and we all need our fair share, the constant seeking out of “likes” impedes our ability to be happy. Biochemically, we can literally be addicted to “likes”. As an example, it has been well-studied that the use of Facebook negatively impacts our mental well-being. Of course Facebook also caters to our basic need of social interaction. While connecting through Messenger, on average, positively contributes to people´s happiness, statistically speaking, the psychological impact on Facebook users is on average, a lonelier and more depressed emotional baseline. People simply feel that their lives are not as satisfactory as that of a friend who just travelled to an exotic island or who bought a new house, new car, or new handbag. There is always at least one Facebook acquaintance pretending to be happier. Bottom-line, when enjoying the perks of Facebook, let us not forget that Facebook posts tend to be positively biased as the authors craft perfect online lives.
For Russell, the Megalomaniacs differ from the Narcissists in that they wish to be powerful, not charming. Megalomaniacs are the people who are so busy changing or conquering the world that they have no time to be happy. They believe happiness is won when they have achieved their goal so they forget to enjoy the journey and almost never reach their megalomaniac goal.
Quoting Machiavelli, “It is better to be feared than to be loved.” I first heard this statement from my father when I was about 8 years old. I was told people who inflict fear get things done. My young mind did not fully understand that but these words had significant and persistent impact. It is a strong and personal reminder of how a short interaction in our formative years can take years to un-train.
In thinking about this type, I can not help but think of certain politicians. After all, some of them strategically inflict fear in their constituents in order to grab more power and remain in power. It is also easy to imagine people who feel entitled to power and authority within their unit like family, professional team, partnership, or community. Though some of them achieve great power and achievements, I observe it is rarely enough. And thus, megalomaniacs are rarely happy.
These three archetypes are obviously not meant to be exhaustive nor are they claimed to be mutually exclusive. But what is interesting to note with these three archetypes is that the sinner does not believe happiness is possible, the narcissist believes happiness is crowd-sourced, and the megalomaniac believes happiness is earned through power and achievements. Although the three are different, all of them self-sabotage their potential for happiness.
There is hope however. When people realise happiness comes from balance within, the next step is looking inward and realising tendencies of self-absorption are in the way.