To most, especially in the Western world, self-actualization means becoming the most accomplished and materially successful version of yourself; growth entails job promotions, wealth accumulation, and climbing the social ladder. Seemingly, these aspects of life comprise “healthy” personal development, yet the US is one of the most despairing countries in the world, where books about loneliness, lonely crowds, bowling alone, and deep intimacy fears are national bestsellers. Is it possible that our version of self-development doesn’t actually engender joy? Can it be that these things which most of us are chasing after are mere illusions that we use to delude ourselves into believing that, eventually, after enough accumulation, they’ll bestow their climactic gift of serenity?
Western culture is unique in its understanding of the elements which constitute happiness. For centuries, humans have gathered together and formed tribes, and created meaning within them. Their groups not only sustained them in terms of physical survival, but also provided each of their members with an invisible something extra: a reason for wanting to live in the first place. For, groups are much more than protection agencies; their existence affords each of its members a foundation for joy, without which the exterior-world would be perceived as an infinite void, in turn stoking the sense of an all-encompassing one within — Ignorance of this is the ultimate modern tragedy.
One of the most fascinating, and my favorite, fields of study is psychedelic research and the so-called “teachings of the plants.” While most of the hallucinations that intoxicated people experience are non-sensical, there are, nonetheless, several underlying themes to all of their encounters, the main one being “oneness,” which is the feeling that all of life is interconnected in some profound way. The plants teach their pupils that the universe doesn’t revolve around them, informing them that others have significant troubles as well. According to their narratives, the subjects additionally learn that meaning is found from without; the plants teach them of the intimate connection between misery and self-absorption: the more one focuses on herself, and her own problems, the sadder she’ll be.
So, how did we lose this ancient knowledge? And, why do people have to travel to distant lands in order to recover it? It seems so obvious, yet remains so esoteric! The most common mistake that we make is believing that more possessions, which includes people and relationships, will make us happy. Some people I know are so caught up in their own depression that their relationships become mere tools of happiness, meaning that their actions, and good deeds, entail expectations of returns; thus, the figurative profits foster joy, not the deeds themselves. However, a relationship built on the foundation of a barter system corrodes from the selfishness of its participants, as the rigid expectations preclude even a modicum of compassion, causing the union to crumble under the weight of their unsustainable tension. An accumulation of material wealth tends to suffer a similar fate.
Reforming Personal Development
Therefore, all of this begs the question: Can we reframe, and reinterpret, what it means to be self-actualized, making our understanding more relevant to our sustained well-beings? In an illuminating article on the concept of ‘Self-Actualization’, Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman wrote:
Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others (important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence– the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.
In essence, in order to become the best version of oneself (the most satisfied and fulfilled), one has to live a meaningful life, but its achievement is an interpersonal endeavor.
Clinical depression and self-aborption are intertwined, as a depressed individual tends to awfulize her problems, in turn fueling the obsessive need to resolve them. Interestingly though, some of the saddest among us are the wisest and most empathic; these individuals realize that overwhelming happiness resides in munificence, and become the great caretakers of our world. But, those who don’t become stuck in an endless loop of ruminations, at the heart of which lies a profound fear of intimacy. Why try to care about others if they’re only going to continue to let you down? Why place energy into people, who’ve repeatedly abandoned you?
And thus, we have our culture, where books about loneliness, lonely crowds, bowling alone, and deep intimacy fears are national bestsellers; where competition thrives; and loneliness abounds. A culture which promotes self-absorption and self-enhancement will never be able to guide its constituents out of their deep despair. So, it’s our obligation to change it. Political organizations, book clubs, and other types of communities are great ways to begin to develop intimacy through shared experiences, presenting avenues of meaning, which can be fostered though a sense of deep interpersonal connection. On an individual level, we need to begin addressing our fear of genuine connections, exploring, and challenging, the reasons which convince us of inevitable heartache. And on a cultural level, we ought to start addressing our obsessions with competition and personal success, elucidating their corrosive effects while offering more interpersonal alternatives to meaning.
In themselves, competition and achievement can be wonderful features, but not so at their extremes. The plant teachers of ancient lineage have given us the same warnings as those provided by people on their deathbeds: An excessive focus on self will invariably lead to despair, as the road to sustainable joy points to generosity and vulnerability. That wisdom has always been available, but it’s up to us to hear it.