Existential Psychology

Helping People Be Happy

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When we try to help the people we care about achieve happiness and fulfillment in their lives one of the biggest challenges we face is overcoming our own narcissism. Consciously we may tell ourselves that our words and actions are in the best interests of the other but unconsciously these words and actions are actually meant to serve us, not the people we are trying to help.

It’s impossible to completely avoid egocentricity, since each of us views reality from our own subjective viewpoints. Often without really thinking about it we try to project this subjective reality onto those around us too. If we can make their worldviews match our own this validates and even sanctifies our own experience, giving us a modicum of protection from the painful feelings of existential anxiety that always accompany uncertainty. At bottom, compelling the people we care about to have the same interests, values, and temperaments is an attempt to create absolutes, helping us feel like we have a handle on our lives.

If we really want to help others be happy and fulfilled we have to start with the fact that we don’t all have the same temperaments or the same outlooks on life, and that there are infinite paths to reach the promised land of self-actualization. We have to look below the surface and see that while they might look different all of these paths share certain underlying characteristics. They are nourishing to the person who is walking them rather than draining, they allow for greater freedom of self-expression and thought, they make people feel like they can really be themselves, and they allow for further growth.

Even if we consciously believe we have a person’s best interests at heart, if we try to make them walk the path that is right for us instead of right for them, then love is replaced by authoritarian control. This is why true knowledge of the other is essential, because the external manifestation of offering advice and support can look identical even though in one case it’s to further the growth of the person we care about and in the other it’s to assure our own sense of comfort and our own certainty about how the world works.

The best way that you can help others be happy is by helping yourself be happy, because you quickly realize that this is only possible when you have the freedom to make your own choices about the specific conditions that are necessary for your development and fulfillment. Meaning is derived from many sources, and when you can find your own meaning you have a much greater respect for the rights of those around you to find their own meaning too.