“Take a picture of me!!!”
I don’t know why, but when my kids demand that I record the most magnificent achievement they’ve just accomplished – like say, jumping up and down – it irritates me to no end.
I want to say, “Where did you get the idea that every little thing you do is so wonderful?!”
Then I realize, they probably got the idea from me.
I began thinking about this more after hearing an episode of National Public Radio’s Hidden Brain called, “Me, Me, Me: The Rise of Narcissism in the Age of the Selfie.”
The episode’s guest, psychologist Jean Twenge wrote the book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.
The book came out of research she conducted in which she concluded that narcissism is on the rise for the current generation of youth (you guessed, it millennials). She says,
“We found that if you look at baby boomers in the ’60s compared to millennials in more recent times, millennials are much more likely to say that they think they’re above average.”
Twenge suggests the rise of this narcissistic tidal waves comes from recent cultural changes, like the shift towards more individualism, the focus on building up self-esteem (as Twenge says, “for no particular reason”), and the advent of social media which according to Twenge, “pulls forward the positive,” and “encourages people to just focus on the good parts of themselves, which, you know, in some ways, is the definition of narcissism.”
In the interview, Twenge also points out the numerous drawbacks to young people having an “overinflated sense of self.”
Her research showed “a decline of happiness among adults age 30 and older…” which she attributes to disappointment that their high expectations for themselves haven’t materialized.
Even worse, Twenge also believes this disappointment can lead to more serious problems, such as depression and anxiety.
Although these trends don’t necessarily prove that all of our kids will grow up to be egomaniacs, hearing about them made me interested in finding an antidote to the condition of myopic self-interest.
Below are some strategies that help encourage kids to look beyond themselves and avoid the often self-destructive path of narcissism.
The current culture in the United States gives kids (and adults) a lot of incentives to focus on themselves. As Twenge says, the rise of social media encourages positive self-promotion, plus the growing customizability of products and experiences increases people’s motivation to prioritize individual needs and desires.
With so many factors tempting kids to look inward, is there anything that still exists to make them look outward?
Several recent studies give an intriguing answer: Awe.
According to the article “How Awe Brings People Together” from Greater Good Magazine, awe-inducing experiences like “hiking majestic peaks, admiring great art, or watching the birth of a child,”
“…fill us with a sense of wonder, challenging our understanding of the world and our place in it.”
The article talks about a paper co-authored by Yang Bai, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley who found that,
“Awe helps you to stop focusing so much on yourself and to look more to what’s around you—toward other people and the world at large…”
Awe opens our eyes to the bigness of the world – rather than the smallness of ourselves.
Interestingly though, the article points out that unlike shame, which makes people feel small and insignificant, awe prompts a sense of the vastness of the world and our place in it.
It makes us feel small but more connected to the greater picture, which inspires people to play a part in the wider world.
The desire to affect the wider world often helps kids develop another key component to avoiding narcissism: Purpose.
An article called “Put the ‘Awe’ Back in Awesome — Helping Students Develop Purpose” from Edutopia cites the author of The Path to Purpose William Damon, who believes,
“…students need to find a purpose in life — something meaningful to themselves that also serves the greater good.”
Damon’s research found that children pursuing a clear purpose benefitted emotionally in numerous ways, including “gratitude, self-confidence, optimism and a deep sense of fulfillment…”
According to the article, research has linked these emotions to the prevention of anxiety and depression, the very same afflictions that Twenge concludes are on the rise due to increased narcissism.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, this research seems to indicate that the more we focus on ourselves, the more dissatisfied we become with our lives.
Both the Greater Good Magazine and Edutopia articles reinforce this point by proposing that a key benefit to awe-filled experiences is that they make people feel more intertwined with the world at large.
The Edutopia article states that this link to something greater is invaluable to sustaining one’s purpose. It credits Damon as saying,
“…without this larger connection, students are less likely to maintain their inspiration, motivation and resilience in the face of challenges.”
So what makes connection such a strong binding element between awe and purpose, as well as an essential factor to staving off self-absorption?
Humans are social beings who are “wired” to connect according to this interview in Scientific American with Matthew Lieberman, scientist, and author of the book Social.
Liberman has found that social connection between people is not merely a “means to an end” for selfish reasons, but that it is intrinsically rewarding. In the article he says,
“We tend to assume that people’s behavior is narrowly self-interested, focused on getting more material benefits for themselves and avoiding physical threats and the exertion of effort. But because of how social pain and pleasure are wired into our operating system, these are motivational ends in and of themselves. We don’t focus on being connected solely in order to extract money and other resources from people – being connected needs no ulterior motive.”
This internal reward is what helps connection drive purpose because as social beings, we find that the thing that most tethers us to this world are relationships and emotional connections. When we find ways to enhance connections with our actions, it helps us find a fulfilling purpose.
Social connections are also related to awe and purpose in a surprising way because people who might not naturally be inclined to having awestruck experiences can instead sometimes be inspired by friends or family members who have had these experiences.
The Edutopia article quotes UC Berkeley social psychologist Paul Piff who says,
“There’s good reason to think that students who don’t experience awe could benefit from those who do. For example, through the contagious effects of positive emotion, increased solidarity and cooperation, social facilitation, and benefiting from others’ egalitarianism.”
In other words, sometimes relationships are the most awe-inspiring experiences we can have.
Moving from Selfish to Selfless
There are a lot of benefits to the recent cultural shifts towards greater individualism and self-esteem. It enhances people’s motivations to be stand out from the crowd innovatively, assert more personal autonomy, and contribute more diverse ideas to the culture.
But all of these benefits are more powerful if they’re channeled outward rather than inward.
The more we can use awe, purpose, and connection to encourage our kids to think about their place in the wider world – rather than just their own personal universes – the better chance they will have to find fulfillment in their lives while making the world a less selfish place.