• Why your ego can’t make you happy

    There are a lot of factors affecting our overall mood and level of happiness. Some of these are environmental, such as our work or school situation, our families, and our level of social support. Other factors are more internal and thought-driven. But of all the various factors that affect how we feel, the most powerful of all is how we think and feel about ourselves. 

    If your thoughts and beliefs about yourself are mostly positive, then you are likely to be a reasonably happy person. If, on the other hand, your thoughts and beliefs about yourself are mostly negative, this makes it difficult to be happy, even if outwardly your life situation is good. How we think and feel about ourselves exerts a near-constant influence on our overall mood.

    When a person has a low opinion of himself, then it could be said that he has low self-esteem. This, in turn, causes unhappiness. For many people, the ego will try to compensate for low self-esteem in an effort to make the person feel better. And it might succeed, but only temporarily. To better understand this, it helps to know the difference between ego and self-esteem.

    The terms “ego” and “self-esteem” (or “self-confidence”) are often used interchangeably, and it’s not difficult to understand why. At first glance, they appear to be similar, or even the same thing. In fact, they are very different from each other, and in some ways, they could be seen as opposites.

    A simple way of looking at the difference between the two is to consider the following: A healthy self-esteem comes from owning one’s goodness, while ego is driven exclusively by the need to be better than others. In order to function, the ego must make comparisons. This is true both on an individual level as well as in a group: “I am better than you,” and “We are better than them.” The ego’s only satisfaction comes from feeling superior, while it lives in constant fear of feeling inferior.

    Healthy self-esteem, on the other hand, doesn’t require a comparison. It doesn’t need to best or defeat anyone. It arises out of recognizing and owning one’s inherent value, as well as skills, talents, and accomplishments. A healthy self-esteem can also handle the reality that one isn’t perfect, that there are things one might be bad at, that one has “flaws.” The ego-driven person has great difficulty acknowledging one’s shortcomings. When the ego has run amok and taken control of the life of its host, we call that narcissism.

    “He’s so full of himself.” “She thinks she’s all that and a bag of chips.” “They’re a bunch of stuck-up snobs.” Such statements made about people whose egos are in charge reflect a common misperception: that people with large egos are brimming with high self-confidence. In fact, it is the opposite that is usually true. Behind a lot of blustery ego hides feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, and shame.

    A person who has a reasonably accurate view of self, which includes one’s good qualities as well as bad, as well as a sense of inherent worthiness, doesn’t need to go around bragging about her abilities. Bragging and boasting are probable signs of an ego that is masking low self-esteem. In fact, much of the time, the ego is trying to boost its host’s self-esteem the only way it knows how: by telling him he is better than others. However, the ego’s attempt to help is doomed to fail.

    Whatever pleasure we might get from believing we are better than someone else is going to be short-lived, and it won’t be long before we need to prove it again and again. The ego can never be satisfied for long. It’s like living on a diet of cotton candy – it can be delicious, but never filling. No matter how many times we might feel like we are the best at something, it doesn’t “stick,” and the happiness that comes with a healthy self-esteem eludes us.

    All of us have an ego, whether we like that fact or not. As far as I know, you can’t kill it or chop it out of your brain. I read something once that said the reason Buddhist monks shave their heads and dress the same is because they are trying to rid themselves of anything the ego can latch onto, and therefore feel superior. But even Buddhist monks have egos, although they might be very good at recognizing it and not allowing it to run the show. 

    So, if you’re a human being (and if you’re reading this, it’s a fairly safe assumption), then you have an ego. So it’s going to pop up every now and then. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the ego is always looking for an opportunity to assert itself and claim a victory. This can happen in subtle ways. For instance, if someone tells a funny anecdote, the ego might say, “I’ve got a similar story, but mine is funnier,” and that will compel the person to tell the story as soon as possible. That example is a fairly harmless manifestation of the ego, but it’s ego, nonetheless. One of the ego’s favorite things is to simply be right, which is why we feel compelled to point out whenever someone says something we know to be wrong. This can cause a lot of needless arguments. The writer Eckhart Tolle suggests we can avoid unnecessary arguments and rein in our ego simply by allowing other people to be wrong. 

    Here’s something everyone needs to know: your ego can never make you truly happy. Whatever pleasure you get from your ego will be fleeting, and it will always be tainted with negativity. While one might derive a sense of pleasure from being able to say to a perceived foe, “Ha! In your face!” there is nothing in that experience that approaches true joy. Joy doesn’t contain any element of spite or revenge, while the ego always does. We don’t need to be upset with our ego for doing what it does, because it really is trying to help. It’s trying to cheer us up. But it can’t bring us real happiness. For that, we have to be reasonably okay with who we are. This, or course, is easier said than done, but it’s a huge part of what therapy is all about. Exactly how we do that… well, that’s a topic for another day.

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