The Role of Self-Understanding in Happiness

Series: The Concept of Happiness

Self-understanding is critical to achieving enduring happiness.

This assertion may seem simple and obvious. Happiness requires that you consistently achieve your values. To have such consistent success, you need to factor your own capabilities into your plans. But to do that, you need to know those capabilities. Q.E.D.

You are the causal agent of your happiness. You choose your values. You initiate the action to gain and keep them. Just as you would check out the specs on a computer to make sure it could handle the tasks you’d give it, you need to know whether you are up to the tasks you set for yourself.

All true. But this is only one small aspect of why self-understanding is critical to achieving enduring happiness.

Self-understanding vs. self-acceptance

Others make this same simple and obvious point in the name of self-acceptance. The way it’s usually put is that you need to accept your limits. I’ve always had a problem with advocating self-acceptance, because often that leads you to give up on aspirations because they seem impractical. How many people have settled for less than they wanted in their lives in the name of self-acceptance?

My view is that if you really, deeply want something that seems impractical, it just means you are going to need to get more creative in figuring out a way forward. Sometimes your specific target changes because you figure out a different way to get what you want. You find a different Ms. or Mr. Right. Sometimes you grow your capabilities, so that eventually your aspiration is practical. You become an expert in your field, which opens up new opportunities. I argue that you should never abandon a selfish value on the grounds of your own apparent weakness. You should only change course in the name of a value you decide is more important for your life, not because you are giving up on something.

Which brings us to what’s not simple and obvious.

What’s not simple and obvious is how you factor your own capabilities into your goals when you are in the middle of growing them. Too often, ambitious people set “stretch” goals and then flounder, because they don’t know how to both make progress and grow their capabilities at the same time. Unlike self-acceptance, the concept “self-understanding” includes the recognition that you can grow your capabilities, and that you do grow them as a matter of course as you pursue values.

What is self-understanding?

By self-understanding, I mean your objective grasp of your own present psychology, including three kinds of stored content: your knowledge, your motivation, and your skills.

1. To grasp the scope of your knowledge, you need to know both what you know and what you don’t know. To truly understand the scope of your knowledge, you need to be curious about a wide range of things, and to learn enough about them to have a sense of the kinds of things that are known.

To some extent, you can inventory your existing knowledge by quizzing yourself. It is awareness of your own ignorance that is most often lacking, especially when it’s a grand-scale ignorance. If you literally know nothing on a topic, you cannot even formulate questions to narrow down what you do and don’t know. But skepticism is so rampant today that some people have trouble trusting that they do, in fact, know many things.

It is knowing what you know that enables you to build on that knowledge. Your knowledge can be organized and expanded by your chosen action, if you conclude that this is important for your success.

2. To grasp the nature of your motivation, you need to know both what your values are and their relative importance to one another. And you need to know whether some of these values have been distorted by past mistakes and/or traumatic experiences. In cases such as compulsions, values can become wired in reverse, so that you desire that which harms you rather than that which benefits you.

Your values can only be identified by introspecting your emotions. Sometimes this is a relatively simple process. Value-oriented emotions draw your attention to values; in simple cases, you just need to pay attention to what you’re feeling. Threat-oriented emotions draw your attention to threats. Since threats are threats to values, in simple cases you just need to take one more step to identify the value at the root of a threat-oriented emotion.

But as I mentioned in the last article in this series on happiness, the object of an emotion can be exceedingly complex. Moreover, values can be formed implicitly, making them difficult to put into words. And emotions can pile on one another, making them difficult to untangle. All in all, there is much skill at introspection needed to be able to identify your values and their relative importance, i.e., your full value hierarchy.

Moreover, it is sometimes more important to notice a disconnect between your intellectual conclusion about what is good for you and your stored motivation. When you recognize such a disconnect, you can take action to strengthen your chosen values and disintegrate mistakes that distort your motivation.

3. To grasp the degree of your skill, you need to know your areas of competence and incompetence. When you overestimate your competence, you can fail spectacularly. When you underestimate it, you artificially cap the joy in your life.

Your skill level can only be identified by attempting action — and seeing if you succeed or fail.

There is always a way to develop your skill level through systematic practice when you conclude it is worth your time and effort.

Self-understanding is a concept that condenses all of this complexity into a single word. This concept helps you to remember that you are what you are now, and your choices in this moment determine what you will be in the next.

Hold on, this is supposed to increase happiness?

In case you hadn’t noticed, developing your self-understanding involves some unpleasant tasks.

You need to admit your own ignorance, which can be quite embarassing. Or worse, you may need to admit to yourself that you knew better and denied that knowlege.

You need to introspect threat-oriented emotions, which are usually unpleasant. Indeed, often the first step in introspecting them is to get clearer on the threat, which temporarily intensifies the unpleasantness. Or worse, you may need to admit that something you thought was a value is actually a distortion — that you were pursuing it for an irrational reason.

You need to try to do things that you know you might fail at. That can be scary. Or worse, you might need to face fears that have stopped you from trying in the past.

And yet developing your self-understanding is supposed to increase your degree of happiness? Isn’t there a risk that these threat-oriented emotions will turn your attention to your weaknesses and suck you into a vicious cycle of suffering?

Sure. Every threat-oriented emotion will suck you into a vicious cycle if you don’t intervene and re-orient to values. This is why I don’t recommend developing your self-understanding as an end in itself. When you hear stories of people having therapy for 30 years without becoming happier, they are probably treating self-understanding as an end in itself.

Rather, I recommend you pursue self-understanding opportunistically as a means of avoiding or breaking out of a vicious cycle related to some existential goal.

How self-understanding cuts through resistance

The big payoff of self-understanding is that it gives you the courage to take unpleasant steps that will materially raise your level of happiness.

The classic example of this is resistance. The experience of resistance is prima facie evidence that you don’t understand everything about your motivation. You think you should do something, but you also feel an overwhelming aversion to doing it. It makes no sense. And yet it’s real.

If you focus on gaining self-acceptance instead of self-understanding, you would be tempted to say, “Well, that’s just the way I am. I guess I can’t do this without more willpower to power through the resistance.”

In one sense this is true. If you feel resistance, somewhere there is a contradication in your thinking or an unresolved conflict between two important values. Until you get it to the light of day, you will continue to experience resistance. So, if you make no change, your only choice is to power through. But why settle for the status quo?

When you are on the premise of seeking self-understanding, you look at the same situation and say, “Gee, that’s weird. I thought I understood all of the issues here. It seemed like a no-brainer that I should do this task. I wonder what the source of that resistance is. There must be some value at the root of it, but I don’t see what it is. I guess I need to get a little clearer to really know what’s going on.”

This is the key step that enables you to dissolve a deep resistance. Based on your current self-understanding, you predict the emotions you will feel, including their weirdness. Then you remind yourself that to untangle this further you need more introspective data. You actually need to experience that inner conflict to be able to introspect more deeply and thereby sort out the source of the resistance that is holding you back. You now have a value-oriented reason for taking a step: you want to get clearer on the source of your motivation — so that you can do this necessary task more easily and pleasantly in the future.

When you grasp that these unpleasant emotions are a necessary part of self-understanding, and are the means of getting rid of this plaguey resistance once and for all, the temporary discomfort is a small price to pay in the pursuit of putting this issue to bed and permanently increasing your base-level happiness.

When you want to achieve a goal that triggers resistance, you turn the resistance around by means of self-understanding. It works with other mental blocks, too. Often you need to take the steps to feel the feelings to get the self-understanding to really solve the problem.

How seeking self-understanding helps you break out of a vicious cycle

Of course, you don’t always have self-understanding to call on when you wish you did. Paradoxically, this gives you an easy way to break out of a vicious cycle.

The simple case here is a threat-oriented loop such as emotional eating. You eat to feel better, then you feel bad that you ate too much, so you need to eat more to feel better, etc. When you find yourself in a threat-oriented loop, from whatever cause, you are suffering. In an earlier article, I made the logical case that what you need to do in that moment is to accept the facts of reality. Well, which facts of reality? A really great start is the facts about your current knowledge, values, and skills.

The truth is, you cannot introspect these qualities directly. You only find out that you lack some aspect of self-understanding when you are in some kind of emotional turmoil. In that case, the type of experience is your lead to the facts you need to investigate and accept.

When you’ve teleported to the refrigerator, you are in a perfect position to learn something about yourself. If you pause and ask yourself, “What was I doing just before I wound up here?” you may actually find it a little hard to answer. As you retrace your steps, you get back to whatever was so darn unpleasant you felt you had to get out of there in a hurry. Now, a few minutes later, you can retrospect on the feelings you had at that moment and see that they are leads to important information about yourself. For example, frustration indicates some lack of skill. Internal conflict indicates that your value hierarchy is not fully integrated. Uncertainty indicates a lack of knowledge. Something was a little too hard for you. But you now have a handle on the problem you were dealing with — and can work to solve it instead of eating cookies, which just creates more problems.

When you are in trouble, you have an opportunity to clarify something about yourself that you didn’t know. The fact that you are in trouble is prima facie evidence that your belief about what you could do doesn’t match the reality in some way. Usually, the step is not as easy as you thought it would be!

In other words, in this bad situation, there is a value there for the grabbing. You’re feeling all of the feelings — all you need to do is to pause to examine this fresh data to get a bead on what’s going on with your motivation. Improving your self-understanding is low-hanging fruit when you are in a vicious cycle. That means getting a little insight — i.e., a dash of new self-understanding — can be the first step in reversing your motivation and inaugurating a virtuous cycle of growth.

The bottom line: Self-understanding is critical to achieving enduring happiness. You need to be able to deal with stubbornly persistent threat-oriented emotions. You need to be able to break out of vicious cycles. You need to be able to put setbacks and failure behind you. You can find graceful ways to do all of these — if you develop your self-understanding.

How do you do it without overdoing the negativity? Be strategic. Get that improved understanding when it is available as low-hanging fruit in the midst of a difficult situation. In such cases, your effort pays off immediately by helping you regain a value orientation. In the longer run, the knowledge you gain in those difficult periods pays off even more. It helps you set appropriately challenging goals — goals you can achieve — for the rest of your life.

Self-understanding — the awareness that you have certain capacities but not others, though you can grow your capabilities if you so choose — is critical to embracing your own causal agency. You are the agent of your happiness. You need to see your own mind — including your knowledge, motivation, and skill — as a living, growing being, which you can nurture to enable you to rise to challenges.

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  1. Lisa Johns

    This was an amazing article and has helped me understand myself better and has given me tools to grow.

    • Jean Moroney

      Lisa, I am delighted to hear that. Giving people tools they can use to foster their own growth is my mission in life. -JFM

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