The Rise of Egoism

It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hardwired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. – David Foster Wallace 


In modern times it is easier than ever to feed our Egos. We constantly look at ourselves in the mirror,[1] on our phones and online. Digital images, selfies and incessant social media use all fuel a strong sense of self. We essentially craft an image that projects toward others, and to ourselves, who we are. By “Ego ” I’m not talking about Freud’s concept of Ego here, but rather a sense of self-identity.[2]

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This crested black macaque monkey took a selfie, setting off a copyright battle. PETA argued (unsuccessfully) that the monkey should have all legal rights to the photograph.

The Internet enables everyone to become a pseudo-celebrity if they choose. On social media many people seem to scream, “Look at me! I’m special!” Everyone can feel famous by garnering online attention. Social medialytes will try to paint a rosy picture of themselves, carefully crafted and transparently superficial. Facebook has heightened our self-obsession as we constantly look at others for comparison and approval. It’s a network of individuals, rather than a community of members.

In America it’s hardly surprising that the self-help industry generates over $11 billion annually. Books like Dale Carnegie’s famous How to Win Friends and Influence People hold top rankings on Amazon’s most popular books. Life coaches Tony Robbins and Tim Ferriss have risen to fame as entrepreneurial gurus. Self-improvement advice is a dime a dozen since we place a high value on individual feelings and accomplishments. The self-help industry as a whole, which includes exercise, nutritional supplements, medications, and personal care products, represents a $400 billion industry. Whether you see this as an indicator of widespread self-obsession or a positive transition, the trend is clear: our Egos are hungry. 

Studies have shown that Americans are becoming more narcissistic in recent times.[3] Many cultural factors combine to create an inflated sense of self-importance, especially among younger generations. And it’s not just Western countries: the Chinese are raising a generation of largely only-children that are being dubbed “Little emperors” and coddled to the point of not being able to tie their own shoes.[4] One can only imagine the developmental psychological effect the constant doting must have on their concept of self.

Many cultures play up individual accomplishments and fetishize over celebrities. The all-important individual has been put on a pedestal in the modern world. The result is that the feeling of us no longer exists the way it did historically. Collective ideological causes may not be dead, but they are highly fragmented. As already discussed, bonds formed in tribal societies don’t exist to the same extent in cushy American neighborhoods where each neighbor lives a distinct and often isolated life. 

The Ego is hungrier than ever because it must fill the void left by this community decline – if one doesn’t believe in some greater cause, then the only thing left to believe in strongly is oneself, the Ego. 

At a very basic level, Egoism is an inherently unfulfilling Belief System because it creates an endless cycle of displeasure. In the Egoist Belief System there is always someone else to impress, some other rung to climb on a never-ending ladder. The Ego requires constant feeding via external validation. Furthermore, Egoism creates conflicts because it encourages everyone to pursue their own best interest. Egoists come into competition with each other, subconsciously requiring conflict to strengthen their own Egos.

 

On a deeper level, Egoism creates a paradox. If we break everything down to the unit of the individual then individual happiness (pleasure: material wealth, status, comfort) becomes of utmost importance. But ironically we needa larger purpose than ourselves to find fulfillment. Egoism encourages us to chase pleasure but makes fulfillment (which requires going beyond the Ego) illusive. As modern Americans are finding out, you can’t focus on yourself in order to find fulfillment because Belief Systems require a collective purpose to be fulfilling.

When Abraham Maslow constructed his hierarchy of needs, he actually attempted to change the top tier from “self-actualization” to “self-transcendence,” but was unable to do so in time for publication. He must have come to the realization that the ultimate form of fulfillment actually comes from getting beyond the Ego, from a greater purpose.

 

The Ego has gone too far, and it’s time we think about reining it back in.So how do we reduce the Ego and recover some sense of collective purpose? 

Through two areas of focus: enriched environments and meditation.

 

1)  Enriched Environments

One fascinating study offered mice the choice of food or cocaine. The mice who were left alone in a cage became addicted to cocaine and neglected to eat. Meanwhile, mice in so-called “enriched” social environments with lots of other mice continued to eat and not a single one of them became addicted to cocaine.[5] In other words, social isolation can lead to addictive and harmful behaviors.

 

Just like the rats in the cocaine experiment, we need to create our own enriched environments, feeding our brains a healthy dose of social bonding in a tribe-like setting. We can simulate the same tribal communities in the modern world. Sports teams, companies, book groups and many other forms of tribe successfully cultivate meaningful in-person relationships where we can connect on an emotional level. In doing so, we’re helping our brain get what they need to produce Happiness Chemicals that motivate us and prevent a host of mental illnesses. It also makes room for a purpose beyond your own Ego, leading to fulfillment and purpose.

 

We are the only animal that shapes our own environment, which in turn shapes our brains. Sure, beavers build dams and ants build anthills, but only humans craft such unique and varied surroundings, choosing whom to associate with, where to live and how to spend our time.

 

I’m not suggesting that we go back to some romanticized era of hunter-gatherer life. Some of these groups held slaves, made sacrifices and had other unsavory tribal practices. But we ought to recognize our biological baggage from evolving in that epoch, and apply this to our modern living situation. My parents, for example, are avid cyclists and wake up every morning to bike and then gather at the local coffee shop to bond and gossip. This community has been a great source of fulfillment for them. 

 

The modern world champions individualism and encourages us to trumpet our own personal accomplishments, about collective cooperation. We naturally tend to isolate ourselves from others and focus on our own ambitions. But rather than building a resume, taking selfies and crafting an online profile, we can focus on helping others, which adds more sustenance to life. It can be liberating to take the attention off of one’s own accomplishments, because suddenly you are de-risking yourself, in a sense, from only caring about a single person: yourself. This allows for sharing in the success of others and finding joy outside of your own achievements. It’s a relief when all of your emotions aren’t relying on just your own wellbeing. 

 

2)  Meditation

In addition to having an exquisite mustache, Albert Einstein had a deep understanding of the natural world. He could reduce complex topics into simple equations. Einstein came up with a less well-known mathematical expression to describe the Ego:

Ego = 1/Knowledge

“More the knowledge lesser the Ego, lesser the knowledge more the Ego ,” Einstein said. In other words, for you mathematicians out there, there’s an inverse relationship between Ego and knowledge.

 

Einstein was of course spot on. He wasn’t just talking about the knowledge that is learned on a blackboard, but also the self-knowledge accumulated from introspection. Have you ever noticed that unintelligent people get insulted easily? They often grasp onto a delusional self-image? Those who have spent little time reflecting on their minds naturally have large, delicate Egos. 

 

The practice of meditation provides a foundation for introspection, allowing Ego to shrink as knowledge grows. Meditation allows us to examine ourselves in ways that at first we might not like. But with practice, it can reduce our self-obsession, increase our awareness of the world, and free us from our hungry Egos. Meditation, although a solitary practice, has been shown to increase feelings of empathy toward others[6]and reduce feelings of loneliness.[7]By directing the attention inward, we are paradoxically able to become a little more selfless.

 

By meditating, you’ve already begun to cultivate introspective awareness. You are moving beyond the Ego toward a healthier, more fulfilling feeling of connection to others. Observing and quieting inner thoughts and emotions loosens the Ego’s grip over your life.

 

Buddhist monks and casual Western meditators alike talk about feelings of loss of self or “Ego death.” This feeling is hard to explain in words, but you may have experienced it when focused intensely on a task in the flow state. In Csiksgentmihalyi’s requirements for “flow state,” loss of Ego was one characteristic often described by athletes who are “in the zone” or artists who are at their most creative.

 

Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that meditation can shut down the Default Mode Network (DMN), an interconnected group of brain structures, which generates self-related thinking and mind-wandering. Freed from the DMN’s pattern of self-related thought, different areas of the brain are free to communicate in new ways. (Interestingly, this is the same brain pattern observed during psychedelic drug use, linking the deactivated DMN to spiritual experiences and creative thinking.) 

Let’s work on using enriched environments and meditation to combat the current rise of Egoism together to become a more cohesive and fulfilled society.


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Footnotes:

[1]Mirrors were not invented in their modern form until 1835 by German chemist Jusus von Liebig and not used widely until even more recently. Going your whole life only occasionally seeing your reflection in a pool of water might lead to a less self-conscious mentality.

[2]Modern neuroscience has confronted us with a strange truth that is almost impossible to accept: we don’t exist. The concept of an “I” that rides around in the head and is one coherent and fluid essence has been proven biologically inaccurate. Although we feel like a single unified entity, nueroscience suggests that the conscious being is in fact a complex collection of chemicals and electrical firings that combine to create the illusion of a stable self. That is, if you subscribe to the materialist belief that consciousness is a product of the brain. In fact, the goal of meditation in many Eastern spiritual traditions is to realize the illusoriness of Ego, such as in the case of Buddhist “Enlightenment.” For the purposes of this book, let’s call this mythical “I” character the Ego and explore why our society’s ego-centric mentality is becoming a problem with far-reaching consequences.

[3]Twenge, Jean M., and Joshua D. Foster. "Birth cohort increases in narcissistic personality traits among American college students, 1982–2009." Social Psychological and Personality Science 1.1 (2010): 99-106.

[4]https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/8997627/China-The-rise-of-the-Precious-Snowflakes.html

[5]Bezard, Erwan, et al. "Enriched environment confers resistance to 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1, 2, 3, 6-tetrahydropyridine and cocaine: involvement of dopamine transporter and trophic factors." Journal of Neuroscience 23.35 (2003): 10999-11007.

[6]Aiken, George A. The potential effect of mindfulness meditation on the cultivation of empathy in psychotherapy: A qualitative inquiry. Diss. ProQuest Information & Learning, 2006.

[7]Creswell, J. David, et al. "Mindfulness-based stress reduction training reduces loneliness and pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults: a small randomized controlled trial." Brain, behavior, and immunity 26.7 (2012): 1095-1101.

 

Liam McClintockComment