Choosing One’s Ways of Being and Living



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     12-14

ABSTRACT:  Each of us has our preferred ways of being in the world and of living in the world, although most people evolve these styles unconsciously and do not choose them purposefully.  Key, far-reaching choices of goals, values, and virtues are identified and the process of choosing is illustrated.

KEY WORDS:  style of being, style of living, personality, philosophy of life, being in the world, values, virtues, life goals, universal goals

Every person develops and emphasizes certain skills for living and certain attitudes toward existence.  These are reflected in the broad area of one’s “personality” as well as in specific task skills, such as communicating, organizing, reading, running, etc.  The development and effective use of such characteristics is different in each of us (and different in each of us at different points in time), reflecting our differing goals (what we perceive as being best for us) and our differing physical and mental capacities and limitations.  Most of us do not consciously choose our particular mix of skills and traits, which simply develops “organically” as we move through life.  Many of our goals and values are adopted by imitating our parents, and some may relate to the ideals that we develop during adolescence.  It is possible to consciously make at least some of our choices of goals, values, and the actions that we use to meet our goals, and since this would enable us to focus more on augmenting the skills most relevant for achievement of our goals, it would better enable us to have the life that we want.


In order to better understand ourselves and understand how to have the lives that we want, it will be useful to consider what the fundamental motives and goals are of all human beings.  Every individual values a somewhat different array of objects, people, and ideals, but those that are common to all human beings would give us some guidance regarding a philosophy of life, fundamental goals, and methods to achieve those goals.  Since we want what we view as being best for us, these goals form the foundation for the life that we believe we want.  A short list of life goals is proposed below.  These goals are universal for human beings around the world, regardless of culture and environment, and we create or formulate all other goals only if we imagine that they will help us meet these fundamental goals.

It is also proposed that satisfactory achievement of these fundamental goals is sufficient for “having a good life,” for all human beings regardless of culture.  We might also note that people are likely to think that anything that assists them to achieve these experiences and life circumstances is “good,” and anything that prevents them from achieving these experiences and life circumstances is “bad.” (These fundamental goals control all of our choices and decisions, regardless of how we try to meet them and regardless of how we explain or justify our behavior.)

1-life maintenance and support (sufficient capacities and goal
attainment to enable one to meet one’s basic needs at least
adequately and to take care of oneself and those legitimately
dependent on one)

2-having no more than a minimal or at least no more than a
tolerable level of physical pain and bodily damage
(recognizing that some amount of physical and emotional
pain are normal aspects of human life and the human

3-having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in one’s life
(including feeling some amounts of happiness and hope, and
ultimately some (for many people, small) amounts of
satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment),
achieved mainly through–
3a-having a good relationship with and good feelings
toward oneself (which may include loving oneself,
respecting oneself, accepting oneself, and  treating
oneself well, and which in large measure results from
being loved, respected, and accepted by others and
from creating good outcomes for oneself)
3b-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional
pain and internal conflict (though recognizing that
some degree of conflict and pain is inherent in being
3c-feeling an adequate level of security

4-having some and to some degree gratifying relationships
with others including most importantly, a secure place in
one’s family and basic acceptance in one’s community

(We can note in passing that the above, with the addition of “having sex,” “nurturing a child,” and “protecting and defending one’s primary groups” form a similar list of “fundamental” motives for all human beings.  These are the only things that motivate us, and everything that we do is aimed at gratification of these motives, whether or not we conceptualize it in that way.)

The goals listed above are “fundamental” in the sense that all other goals and motives (to have friends, to get a job, to get married, etc.) occur to us only because they serve one or more of these fundamental goals.  (We have learned through experience that these activities can help us to gratify or fulfill those more fundamental goals.)   When we say we want a job, we actually want a job in order to take care of other motives, such as to obtain food, shelter, good feelings about ourselves, security, status, emotional contact with others, a marriage partner, etc.  When we “want some ice cream,” we may be imagining the pleasurable taste of it, but beneath that and even more strong may be a desire to feel the sense of being loved (being fed) or being secure because of being taken care of.  Having sex is pleasurable, and it also serves the goals of security, good feelings about self, gratifying relationships, and to some extent, survival.

All of the activities that we create in life are means for reaching these fundamental goals.  This is more obvious with the activities that get us food and shelter, but even our more abstract activities serve these goals.  Thinking about philosophy has the purpose of detecting what makes a good life and that presumably will help to have that good life (by maximizing gratification of those fundamental goals).  If thinking were simply pleasurable, rather than aimed at ferreting out important principles about life, it would then serve the goal of being in a pleasant emotional state.  Virtues such as courage, prudence, and humility all serve these goals.  Humility, for example, keeps us balanced in terms of self and others and keeps us from over-estimating ourselves, which would lead to social conflict.

Often we don’t think about these more fundamental motives and goals, but we can be aware of them if we think about why we are really doing what we do.  This awareness often allows us to get what we want even more successfully.  If we become aware that a key motive for seeking a particular job is to find dating partners, that would cue us to think more about other and perhaps more fruitful methods of finding dating partners.  If we were aware that our desire to marry was based largely in a desire for security, then we could think more clearly about other, more direct methods of achieving increased security.

These fundamental goals are neither “good” nor “bad” to us; they simply “are.”  We can see, of course, that pursuing them sometimes leads to “bad” consequences (murder to gain status and security, great loss of life due to protecting our primary groups), but the only way to avoid harm to self and others in seeking achievement of these goals is to understand our motives better and to develop different, prosocial methods for meeting our needs.


It seems clear now that all of these goals are consistent with the hard-wiring of our brains by evolution.  We are prepared, by evolution or by divine creation, to view these goals as good and to bend all of our efforts toward reaching them, day after day.

You will have noted the qualifiers in these goal statements.  What is “satisfactory,” “adequate,” “reasonable,” “sufficient,” “tolerable,” and “minimal” for these goals will vary somewhat with our individual differences (both physically and emotionally) and with differences between societies (particularly in values and economic situation).  (“Satisfactory” fulfillment of these goals is sufficient for having “a good life,” and unsatisfactory fulfillment of even one of them portends that one would not rate one’s life as “good.”)

Many lives involve periods in which one or more of the desirable experiences and circumstances listed are absent—having serious physical pain for four years but not after that, suffering from poor self-esteem but gaining better self-esteem through psychotherapy, living through a starvation period until more food is reliably available, etc.  Such persons might certainly toward the end of their lives still conclude that they had had a good life, but while going through difficult periods they would almost certainly not have said that their lives were good currently.

Note that the emphasis in this list of goals is on outcomes, process, and experience, rather than on the content of one’s life.  How one achieves good self-esteem, security, and fulfillment of basic needs varies quite a bit among people, so it is not necessary for self-esteem that one be married, not necessary for security that one have lots of money, and not necessary for fulfilling basic needs that one have a smart phone or be part of any particular type of economy (hunting/gathering, technological, industrial, agricultural).

It is also important to note that we only know what is desirable in life through our emotions and not through our cognitive abilities.  Most people assume that since they describe their values and goals in words, those values and goals must derive from thinking, but that is not the case.  Without emotions we are like ships without rudders.  When we become aware that we want something, it triggers cognitive activity to imagine ways to fulfill the desire.  The results of each of our desires (gratification or not) is stored in memory.  When, as now, we try to think about our values or choosing our lives, our emotional response to those groups of memories (about how we have lived or not lived according to our values and about the quality of our lives) tells us whether our efforts stored in those memories are worthwhile and worth trying again.  The strength of our various pleasant or unpleasant emotional responses allows us to rank-order or prioritize goals and goal-attainment methods that are more likely to result in pleasant outcomes (which we then re-order based on cognitive assessments of effort and likelihood of success).  If you can imagine thinking about what is the best way to live without having any feelings as you are thinking, then you will realize that those thoughts, alone, are sterile and cannot tell you whether anything is “good” or “bad.”  Even if they could tell you that some goals and methods present a greater chance of dying than others, without an emotional reaction to those thoughts you will not know if dying is good or bad.


We seek to be in a positive emotional state by regulating our emotions, seeking pleasurable experiences, gratifying desires, moderating or eliminating stimuli that lead to negative emotional states, finding meaning and purpose in life, and seeking contact with objects of conditioned desire (that symbolize positive things for us) such as keepsakes, amulets, money, important environments (like “home”), etc.

To be in a positive emotional state often requires avoiding or stopping emotional pain, especially the pain of shame, guilt, fear of difference, fear of the unknown, fear of death, and feeling rejected/alone.

To be in a positive emotional state, many people seek to rise or at least to maintain their positions in applicable status hierarchies.  (Simple survival no longer requires rising in the social hierarchy in most societies.)

In order to have positive self-esteem and minimal emotional pain or conflict, we seek to have adequate amounts of touch, love, comforting, and empathy from others, but we must also take charge of respecting ourselves, accepting ourselves, loving ourselves, having reasonable standards for ourselves, and treating ourselves well if we are to have self-respect and relatively secure self-esteem.

Security is often sought through finding and protecting resources, eliminating threats, achieving equilibrium or homeostasis, achieving congruence or resolution, and seeking power over others.

To be in a positive emotional state, to feel sufficiently secure, and in response to the competition with others that everyone feels from very early in life, most human beings seek to please at least certain others, to be “special” to some others, and to ensure that things are “fair” between self and others (or at least that they are not “unfair” to us).

In order to survive in the typically difficult physical and social environments that we inhabit, we human beings naturally make use of our emotional and cognitive abilities to imagine the future and to understand likely consequences of our various options.  When our behavior or happenings around us are consistent with or seem to exemplify our values, we feel a gratifying “sense of meaning” (which we take to mean that we are “on the right track” in life and that our lives have a point or purpose that justifies our efforts).  Questions of whether one’s life has been “good” or whether it has meaning often come up on disruptive occasions when our expectations are upended (the death of a spouse or child, a calamitous war) and we ask ourselves whether it was “all worth it” or “what was the point, anyway?”  Finding meaning is one of the many ways that we seek to be in a positive emotional state.

It might be argued that some people reject or deny that having relationships with others is desirable, but an adequate explanation for this is that while unfortunate and traumatic experiences may lead some of us to deny one or more of these universal life goals, if the denier could freely and completely imagine achieving them comfortably, then he or she would agree that they were in fact desirable.  Some also might say that a good relationship with self is not important, but that would be only if they did not understand the tremendous influence that their own relationships with themselves were having on their lives.  It is very unlikely that anyone would deny that having adequate resources to maintain life, minimizing pain, or having some positive experience in life were desirable (except for those who happen to be suicidal at the moment).


The confirmation that these experiences and circumstances are in fact universally desirable around the world would presumably be indicated if almost all human beings in the world agreed (1) that these goals are all desirable and (2) that together they are sufficient for having a good life, despite variations in societies, environments, and other life outcomes.  It is possible to identify a differently based list of goals using level of individual functioning in various areas (how good one’s marriage is, job success, how good one’s health is, etc.), but it is difficult to rate these things universally, since the emotional and gratification roles that they play in individual lives are somewhat different in different societies.  Ultimately universal life goals will have to be justified by the experiences they produce in us (as identified in the fundamental goals above), since our experience is in the end all that we have to judge from.

A complication in confirming that these basic-level life experiences and circumstances are valued by and important to virtually everyone is that some individuals become attached to derived goals in their societies in their particular day and age and do not recognize that these derived goals are attempts to fulfill more basic goals, as when a person loves and needs money and fails to realize that the purpose of money is to allow him or her to fulfill other, more basic and fundamental goals (survival, security, self-esteem).  Some might be overly attached to being respected and might even kill another person over being disrespected, not realizing that the purpose of being respected is really to support gaining adequate self-esteem and group acceptance and that these fundamental goals can be achieved despite occasional disrespect.


The focus on the most obvious ways to achieve these fundamental goals may not be as fulfilling as some less obvious ways.  In our current society we might first think of (1) taking what we need to survive, from others if necessary, (2) building walls around our lives, (3) avoiding all pain, (4) partying as much as possible, and (5) having as many Facebook friends and Twitter followers as possible.  These methods would not lead to as much total satisfaction and fulfillment as some deeper and more sophisticated ways.

Many people these days are heavily focused on the pursuit of happiness, but happiness is usually short-lived (though pleasurable), and greater total positive feelings can be obtained through deeper and longer lasting emotional states–in particular some amounts of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment.  Joy is a more deeply felt version of what most of us mean by “happiness,” and having more joy results from becoming more open to the intensity of our feelings and from finding some “meaning” in our sources of happiness (as in sharing the happiness of one’s child over a significant milestone or accomplishment).  Satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment are somewhat more stable and longer-lasting than joy.

Satisfaction is felt when we assess that we have done what we needed to do to reach a goal (a small-step goal or a final goal), and we are pleased with our efforts and with the outcome.  We feel satisfied if we access and eat food that pleases us.  We may feel satisfied, regardless of the food, for simply being a person that the preparer of the food wanted to feed.  We are satisfied with our jobs when we are in a job in which our work results for us in reaching the goals we had for being in a job, in terms of pay, interactions with others, working environment, quality of management, or other goals.

Contentment is an emotional state characterized by having no pressure to be other than who one is at the moment or do anything additional to what one is doing at the time.  One can be content and still be working toward a better life or being a better person, as long as one is not comparing oneself with others, not pressured or pressuring oneself through shame or guilt motives, and not comparing oneself to expectations and standards for oneself that are inhumane or inappropriate.

Fulfillment is what we feel when we have reached a goal by using aspects of our “real selves” (abilities, capacities, knowledge, talents) honestly and sincerely (as contrasted with pretending to be other than we are or pretending to believe or feel other than we actually believe or feel).  We may feel fulfilled when we consider the children that we have raised and how they are thriving.  We may feel fulfilled when we reflect on a career in which we have given to others using meaningful aspects of ourselves in creating results that are consistent with our values.  We would not feel fulfilled, on the other hand, if we obtained a reward by pretending to have done something that we in fact did not do (even if we appreciated and enjoyed the reward).

Each of us will utilize somewhat different approaches to maximizing fulfillment of these fundamental goals, and it will be helpful to you to identify the methods and approaches that you are using in trying to pursue them.  Sometimes, because of the vagaries of our conditioning experiences in life, we act in ways that are actually harmful to our efforts to reach our goals.  For example, if you want to control people, it would not help you to be sincerely nice to others, and if you want to have close relationships with others, it would not help you to be generally critical of others.


We often speak of our values as if they define our goals, when actually they are abstractions that represent the reinforcing fundamental goals that we have discussed above.  (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary refers to this when noting that one meaning of “value” is “a principle or quality that is intrinsically valuable or desirable.”)  If honesty is one of my values, it means that I believe that honesty is a good policy and is very likely to help me to have the life I want.  (This may be a life that I have determined for myself, or it may be a life that is partly or wholly determined, with my agreement or collusion, by an authority such as God, the church, or my parents.)  We choose our values so that they are consistent with our goals, if we are consciously aware of those goals.  (We do not choose our fundamental goals; we have them simply because we are human.)  Note that “values” as used here are not “things we value” or “things that are valuable” such as your dog or money, but are abstractions that describe behaviors that we believe will result in reward or good lives for us if we follow or implement them.  Examples include life, family love and loyalty, love, equality, fairness, autonomy, knowledge, friendship, religion, health, justice, beauty, rationality, truth, excellence, peace, freedom, happiness, and integrity.


“Virtues” are behaviors that we believe will help us to achieve our goals (including cases in which our goal is to conform to the wishes of another or please that other entity, in which cases we would see our goal as “to be good” or moral).  The dictionary (Webster’s Ninth Collegiate) calls this the “beneficial quality or power of the thing.”  My own short list of key skills for living is—
skills for dealing with one’s emotions

Religions usually claim that obedience to religious authority will lead to a good life.  We might well include being a good friend, being reasonable, and patience as important virtues.

Saint Thomas Aquinas named the natural virtues to be understanding, science, wisdom, art, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and the infused virtues (infused by the Holy Spirit) to be faith, hope, and charity.

Benjamin Franklin is reported to have identified the following as desirable and useful character traits:  self-control, silence (good listening), order, making maximum effort, thrift, being productive, fairness, cleanliness, moderation, tranquility, charity, humility, and sincerity.

The late nineteenth century’s view of maturity included being hard-working, self-reliant, self-controlled, logical, egalitarian, loyal, and emotionally warm.

Psychologist Gordon Allport identified characteristics of successful people to be having interest in other things and people, warmth and friendliness, self-acceptance, a fair grasp of reality, awareness of limitations, a sense of humor, and a philosophy of life.

Modern developmental psychology has produced the following view:  “basic values” necessary for successful functioning are a realistic view of oneself and the world, social competence sufficient to get one’s needs met, and self-control sufficient to prevent needs and impulses from interfering with success, plus “superior values” that are achieved by few–altruism (warmth, concern, responsibility, gratitude, fairness, and love), integration (harmony of elements in the person, integrity, honesty, self-acceptance, inner calm, self-knowledge, and insight), autonomy (self-assurance and self-respect leading to some freedom from dependence on the opinions of others), and ethical consistency (having principles and living by them) (Kiefer, 1988).

(As you will have noted, there is considerable fluidity in the uses by various people of the terms “values” and “virtues.”)

This would be a good time to reflect on your most important values and virtues and to begin to wonder if they really represent you and are as useful and effective as you would like them to be.  You may use the worksheet at the end of this essay if you wish.


Many people feel that in order to feel good about life and about their efforts in life, it is necessary for them to have a sense of purpose that relates to something outside themselves.  This purpose is most often living as someone else wants us to live—parents, God, the neighbors, society in general, etc., but it can also be a more specific focus (being a good mother because one’s own mother was not a good one; etc.).

Finding purpose and meaning in life by relating oneself to something outside oneself is very common for human beings, at least partly because we have no built-in programming for purpose or beliefs, and given our insecurity about almost everything, we like the assurance that we get from participating in the worldview and purpose that other people “believe in.”  (Just because others believe in something doesn’t make it true, of course, just as the fact that others act in a certain way does not make that behavior right.)  It is also much easier to join in with others than to find one’s own view of life and purpose, which would usually involve some uncertainty and the awareness that one has little proof that one’s worldview or notion of purpose is “correct” or is any more correct than those of anyone else.

This concern about purpose extends to wanting to know “the purpose of life” or “the meaning of life,” and again people most often choose a purpose that is defined by someone else (what God wants; what one’s parents want; what a political leader wants; etc.).  If the external source of purpose in life is not God, it is often a view of a set of universal principles that is similar to the characteristics ascribed to God.

When one adopts the worldview and sense of purpose of others, it is certain that it will not “fit” one’s own observations of life as well as one’s own conclusions would, so one gives up some of one’s individuality and potential in adopting these external views.  If you wish to place yourself in the context of an externally defined worldview or sense of purpose, be careful of those who represent or teach that worldview or purpose, since they may try to benefit themselves by leading you toward that view.

In my opinion, one’s own life and functioning contain enough purpose for a lifetime (taking good care of ourselves, loving others, parenting well, contributing to the well-being of everyone, etc.), and we are better off making the effort to decide on our own goals and values in life than adopting those of others (which are usually arranged more for their benefit than for ours).  Of course, we learn a tremendous amount from the expressions and experiences of others, and this forms the basis, along with one’s own experience, for formulating values and purpose.

One’s daily choices and actions express one’s sense of purpose, in terms of the values for which one lives.  Living so as to express and enhance the values that one holds most dear defines a purpose for oneself (i.e., to embody one’s values in such a way that self and others benefit and that others may come to reconsider their own choices).  Another way to think of this is that a sense of purpose can be found by doing in daily life what one finds most satisfying and fulfilling (not necessarily most pleasurable), since feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment come from doing what is consistent with one’s sense of value, meaning, and purpose, whether that is taking care of one’s family, expressing complex experience in written words, making a beautiful piece of furniture, composing music, or providing food or drink for one’s fellow men.  Each of these is an honorable enterprise and can be a sufficient purpose for a human being.



Many of us build our own personal styles by incorporating a number of different elements into our lives, and there are also a number of styles of being and living that we can recognize as patterns in others.  Some examples of recognizable styles are calmness/peace/love/cooperation, dominance/authority, striving/competition, attention/fame, stimulation/hedonism/sensory pleasure, intellectual life, conform/fit in/be good, hidden style (revealed only in private), undeclared style (avoidance of choosing), and multi-style.  We should note that most people adopt a combination of skills and styles that fits their various goals and experiences.  These chosen skills and styles are not always consistent with one another.

To illustrate how one might choose skills and tools to enable maximum achievement of a style, let’s take a look at calmness/peace/love/cooperation.  These people like to stay calm and interact with others in peaceful and cooperative ways.  Love is a primary value and goal for them.  They do not like conflict or violence.  In my opinion, the skills and tools most useful for this style are—

be able to have “good” or “positive” interactions with
people (which are defined as interactions in which both parties
feel comfortable and safe, as a result of understanding each
other and feeling treated appropriately by the other person,
and in which both parties are motivated to cooperate to
achieve mutually agreeable goals),

be self-aware, especially to feel and know about all of one’s
emotions (so as to be able to manage one’s emotions and
behavior in the direction of positive interactions)

be able to manage one’s emotions effectively (so as to be able to
be calm and to have reliably positive interactions with others,
order to live peaceably and cooperatively)

approach others and life with positive expectations

always seek good outcomes for both self and others from all of
one’s behavior (so as to maximize chances of positive and
loving relationships)

have good self-control (so as not to create negative interactions)

have a good relationship with oneself (so as to be at peace
internally and able to feel good will toward others)

be accepting (of self, others, and the inevitable pain of living) (so
as to be able to be at peace)

be at peace with oneself, others, and life (so as to engender
calm and peacefulness in others)

be calm (so as not to disturb others)

be responsible (to promote positive relationships)

be cooperative (to cause other to see us in a positive light)

be fair (to demonstrate that one takes others’ welfare seriously)

be honest (so as to promote positive relationships)

be understanding with others

be loving (so as to invite love from others)

be compassionate

treat others well (to promote peaceful, loving, cooperative

be able to be emotionally close with some others

be generally happy with oneself, others, and life (so that others
will like to be around one)

If a person, on the other hand, chose a life focus of dominance/authority, one would choose other skills and methods of maximizing the benefits from that lifestyle, such as—

understand others (so as to be able to know what behaviors
are most likely to establish one’s dominance over them)
control one’s empathy (so that one does not feel others’ pain
when causes them pain in order to get them to do what
one wants
establish reward networks of associates/assistants to ensure
loyalty to oneself as dominant
sense others’ vulnerabilities accurately
deceive others effectively in order to maintain power
keep relationships alive even while one is harming others
pretending to have others’ interests at heart, while actually
pursuing one’s own goals

To illustrate that one would approach achieving the fundamental goals above in his or her own unique way, I personally would favor a lifestyle (for myself as well as for as many other people as possible!) that has the greatest chance of leading to a life that has optimal amounts of—

  • joy,
  • fulfillment,
  • contentment,
  • satisfaction,
  • equality among people,

and minimal amounts of–

  • conflict,
  • hatred, and
  • violence.

I would choose the following skills and methods to achieve these goals as the best way (in my opinion) to achieve the fundamental goals above.

1-life maintenance and support (sufficient capacities and  goal
attainment to enable one to meet one’s basic need at least
adequately and to take care of oneself and those legitimately
dependent on one)

In order to have the best chance of fulfilling this goal I believe
that it would work best to—

have or gain a sufficient amount of accurate knowledge about
self, others, and the world
develop the degree of motor coordination and behavior
organizing skills needed to accomplish desired goal
be responsible
take charge of one’s life
be cooperative
be fair
be self-confident
have good self-control
be able to have “good” or “positive” interactions with
people (which are defined as interactions in which both
parties feel comfortable and safe, as a result of
understanding each other and feeling treated appropriately
by the other person, and in which both parties are motivated
to cooperate to achieve mutually agreeable goals)
be able to manage one’s emotions effectively (so that
others will be likely to cooperate with one in working
toward getting what one needs to survive and thrive)
approach others and life with positive expectations
always seek good outcomes for both self and others from all of
one’s behavior

2-having no more than a minimal or at least no more than a
tolerable level of physical pain and bodily damage             (recognizing that some amount of physical and emotional
pain are normal aspects of human life and the human

In order to have the best chance of fulfilling this goal I believe it
will work best to—

have or gain a sufficient amount of accurate
knowledge about self, others, and the world
develop the degree of motor coordination and behavior
organizing skills needed to avoid injury and to accomplish
goal fulfillments
be able to have good or positive interactions with others (so as
to avoid being harmed by them)
be accepting (of inevitable pain)
be serene

3-having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in one’s life
(including feeling some amounts of happiness and hope, and
ultimately some (for many people, small) amounts of
satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment),
mainly through–

3a-having a good relationship with and good feelings toward
oneself (which may include loving oneself, respecting
oneself, accepting oneself, and treating oneself well, and
which in large measure arises from being loved,
respected, and accepted by others and from creating
good outcomes for oneself)

In order to have the best chance of fulfilling this goal, it will
work best to—

feel and know about one’s emotions
be able to manage one’s emotions effectively
take charge of one’s life and feelings about oneself
be honest
be responsible
be loving
be accepting
be self-aware
be compassionate
treat oneself well
be at peace with oneself, others, and life
have good self-control

3b-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional
pain and internal conflict (though recognizing that some
degree of conflict and pain is inherent in being human)

In order to have the best chance of fulfilling this goal, it will
work best to—

feel and know about one’s emotions
be able to manage one’s emotions effectively
treat others well (so that they don’t cause one pain)
have positive emotional relationships with others
have a good relationships with oneself
be accepting
be calm
be compassionate
be able to be emotionally close with some others
be at peace with oneself others, and life
be generally happy with oneself, others, and life

3c-feeling an adequate level of security

In order to have the best chance of fulfilling this goal, it will
work best to—

have or gain a sufficient amount of accurate
knowledge about self, others, and the world
take charge of one’s life
have good self-control
be able to manage one’s emotions effectively
have positive relationships with others
be accepting (of unavoidable insecurity)
be fair
be calm
be at peace with oneself, others, and life

4-having some and to some degree gratifying relationships with
others, including most importantly, a secure place in one’s
family and basic acceptance in one’s community

In order to have the best chance of fulfilling this goal, it will
work best to—

feel and know about one’s emotions
be able to manage one’s emotions effectively
have positive relationships with others
be honest
be responsible
be loving
be accepting
be cooperative
be fair
be empathic
be compassionate
be understanding with other
treat others well
be able to be emotionally close with some others
have good self-control (so as not to drive others away)
approach others and life with positive expectations
seek good outcomes for both self and others from all of one’s

After perusing this illustration of possible methods of achieving the fundamental human goals, it should be clear that a person who chooses and tries to be good at the particular skills and methods that I have emphasized is someone who places greatest emphasis on having sufficient knowledge, being able to manage her emotions, having good self-esteem, and treating others well.  Others might choose a different array of methods to achieve the same goals.  For example, for goal 1 (life maintenance and support), the overall method described by my chosen skills is to know how to accomplish the goal and to work well with others (cooperating, being helpful, helping others reach their goals, too) in order to get what one wants.  Other major approaches are (1) to use power over others to make them do what one wants them to do (in order to get what one wants), (2)to take advantage of others whenever possible (stealing, extorting, lying, etc.), and (3) to pretend to be needy or ill in order to get others to take care of one.  Most people use some combination of the skills involved in more than one of these overall approaches.

As noted already above, if one chose the method of taking advantage of others whenever possible, one would wish to cultivate such skills as sensing others’ vulnerabilities, deceiving others effectively, keeping relationships alive even while you are harming others, pretending to have others’ interests at heart, etc.  If one chose the power option approach, one would wish to cultivate abilities to make expectations and consequences very clear, punish any deviation from expectations, subtly carry out extortion and blackmail, etc.


Trying to look at this issue more generally, we can identify core attitudes and skills with regard to which we all have to take some position in life.  These are the issues that will have the greatest influence over the quality of our lives-i.e., how we will experience our lives.  We can either make purposive choices on these matters or forego choosing and let our choices be made by default.  You might be used to thinking that your choices of job, significant other, and where you live are what determine your quality of life, but the core attitudes listed below determine those choices as well as every other choice that you make and so have a much wider influence on your life.

  • general optimism or pessimism
  • happiness or sadness about being alive
  • zest for living (versus boredom)
  • being generally accepting or generally contentious with respect to life experiences and circumstances
  • how one understands how we come to be alive
  • how one understands why we are here
  • happiness or sadness about being oneself
  • how one treats oneself (nicely vs. poorly)
  • how one treats others (nicely vs. poorly)
  • seeking knowledge to help one to make decisions vs. fearing knowledge and preferring tradition
  • wanting to know the truth vs. fearing the results of knowing the truth
  • whether to see the truth about one’s own motives and behavior
  • wanting to manage one’s life vs. letting one’s life  “happen” on its own path
  • whether to take all future consequences of behavior and the impact of one’s behavior on others into account when making decisions vs. putting more weight on immediate consequences
  • how much to control one’s emotions and behavior
  • a generally positive vs. a generally negative attitude toward others
  • whether to seek an empathic understanding of others (to “feel,” to some degree, what they feel)
  • how emotionally close to others to be
  • whether to seek to get what one wants through cooperation with others to benefit everyone, or to seek to get what one wants through taking advantage of others whenever possible (including societally-accepted competition)

Skills helpful for maximizing the benefits of all positively oriented lives include—

  • having sufficient knowledge to enable effective goal attainment efforts
  • the ability to figure out the truth about things (self, others, the world)
  • the ability to feel and manage all of one’s emotions and feelings without reacting with destructive actions or distorting the information contained in those emotions and feelings
  • adequate self-control
  • the ability to conduct generally positive interactions and relationships with others
  • accurate empathy for the experience of others
  • the ability to cooperate with others and treat them well in order to accomplish mutual goals
  • the ability to be emotionally close with at least some others
  • the ability to see one’s own behavior objectively and to perceive how one might be distorting the truth or being unfair to others
  • motor skills sufficient to enable goal efforts and attainment

Let us take a look at the philosophical or existential choices.

1. general optimism or pessimism

Most of us are not either completely optimistic or completely pessimistic, but whether we are more optimistic or pessimistic has a great influence on our daily experience of living.  Optimists are happier, have better health, and enjoy life more.  Pessimists are more gloomy, have more emotion-related health problems, and enjoy life less.  Although genetics plays some role in determining whether we will be more optimistic or pessimistic, pessimists are usually pessimistic mostly because they are afraid to be hopeful—afraid because they have been disappointed in the past when hoping, and they protect themselves from disappointment by expecting the worst.  Unfortunately for pessimists, a positive and hopeful attitude itself brings about more success in life, because operating in a positive framework does away with internal struggles over whether there will be success or not, helps us to focus all our energies on doing whatever we are doing as well as we can, and influences those around us to be helpful in our efforts (and, optimists are happier while they are doing whatever they are doing).

It is important to note that this does not support unrealistic optimism (Every day in every way, things are getting better and better) but rather describes a general expectation about life, either positive or negative, when this does not contradict what is reasonable.  I am not advocating Pollyannaism (understood as unrealistic and all-encompassing optimism) but rather realistic optimism—expecting success when the there is a reasonable expectation of success.  Pessimist are often said to be more realistic about things than optimists, but optimists can be equally realistic if they choose.

If you are a pessimist, you can choose to be more optimistic, and you can accomplish this by following such simple maxims as “look on the bright side” and by developing skill in “reframing” as practiced in modern psychotherapies, where you recognize your pessimistic interpretation or assumption and consciously restate to yourself a more optimistic (and realistic) interpretation (is the glass half empty or half full?).  In doing this, pessimists can take comfort in the fact that if they are right in their pessimism, then the outcomes of trying to be more optimistic won’t be any worse than if they had stayed pessimistic, and if being optimistic does help, then the outcomes can only be better.  You can’t lose, in other words, except for the part about experiencing disappointment when things don’t work out as hoped, but if you are willing to reframe some disappointments as being only way stations on the road to eventual success, then the sting of disappointment can be minimized, and the optimistic hope will help you to try again.

2. happiness or sadness about being alive

If you are generally happy about being alive, you have a generally positive attitude toward life, and if you are generally sad about being alive, you will have a generally negative attitude toward life and will tend to be pessimistic regarding your daily experiences.  This attitude is partly determined by genetically-related temperament, but experience plays a larger role.  Most people are happy about being alive (and strive mightily to stay alive), even if they never think about it in that way, partly because people with negative attitudes toward living probably die earlier and reproduce with a lower frequency.  Having generally good experiences in life (despite the occasional pain that is normal for human beings) leads us to view living positively, and having generally bad experiences in life (parental rejection, poverty, failure, serious illness) leads us to view living negatively.

You can move your general feeling toward the positive by increasing your general optimism, as above, and by trying your best to produce good outcomes for yourself every day.  This is a complex undertaking, requiring development of adequate cognitive and social skills, viewing yourself as worthy of good things, and approaching every moment with a view to making the best life you can for yourself.  We do have a chance every day to move ourselves a little more toward the positive, and regularly using that opportunity is a positive statement in itself.  An endless parade of self-help books focus on cognitive and attitudinal tricks to be more positive, but the bottom line is producing good outcomes for yourself, because that is the only way that you will conclude that life is actually positive enough to warrant a generally positive attitude.

3. zest for living (versus boredom)

Having a zest for living, or zest in living, is being interested each moment in your emotional status and in the very stimulating and interesting world around you.  This is fueled by our human propensity to be always looking for opportunities to make our inner state more positive, either through meeting a basic need (food, clothing, shelter) or putting ourselves into experiences that produce positive emotions (an enjoyable interaction with another person, a trip to Disneyland, reading a good book, etc.).  If you are not interested in the world and its possibilities for you, then you will be bored and will not use your energies and skills to do good things for yourself.

Having this interest in living is normal for human beings as part of our evolved adaptation to being (and staying) alive, but it is maintained by having an adequate proportion of “successes” in which we make effort and produce good outcomes for ourselves.  Depending on how we view the difficulties of producing these good outcomes in the situation we are in, this proportion can be rather low, or in better circumstances, somewhat higher, but each person sets this level for himself or herself every day.  We achieve having and maintaining one’s zest for living, therefore, by having reasonable expectations for our proportion of successes and by using all of our abilities in good faith to produce those good outcomes.

4. how one understands how we come to be alive and why we are

The answers that we accept regarding these imponderable questions are both results and determinants of our overall attitudes toward ourselves and toward life.  If we think and feel that we are here for positive reasons (as a result of a positive impulse on God’s part, to fulfill our natural inclinations, etc.) then we will probably, consistent with that, view life generally positively, whereas if we think and feel that in being alive we are basically being punished or severely tested, then we will probably view life generally negatively.  (It is interesting to note that when life was much more difficult in past centuries, religions placed great emphasis on a better afterlife, whereas in “advanced” societies now, life is “good” enough that we are less concerned about the afterlife.)

Our beliefs are also influenced by our experience.  If we are having generally good outcomes in life and have a generally positive attitude toward life and toward ourselves, then we are likely to believe in positively-oriented explanations for how and why we are here.

It is possible, though less common, to have no particular answers to those questions and still have a good life, believing that our experience and what we make of our lives is all that is important anyway, but most people prefer to have explanations and answers to these questions that give them reassurance about the future (the positive view) or at least indicate that there is ultimately not much they can do about their circumstances (a more negative view).

5. how one feels about oneself (happy or sad, positively or

Self-esteem is defined in my book on the subject as one’s emotional response to one’s perception of oneself, which can be to various degrees positive or negative.  How we feel about ourselves determines much about our lives, particularly what we think we deserve in life.  Examples are mate choice, ambition, friend choice, how we treat ourselves, and expectations of good or bad treatment by others.  As noted already, many of our perceptions are affected by whether we are able to create good outcomes for ourselves in life.  Positive self-esteem stems initially from being valued by others and is maintained or improved largely by creating good outcomes for ourselves.

In order to make how we feel about ourselves and what we expect in life better, we can focus on—

  • seeing ourselves more realistically and seeing accurately how our poor self-esteem came to be
  • seeing ourselves as basically equal to others
  • seeing ourselves as having intrinsic worth (and just as much intrinsic worth as others)
  • taking charge of and responsibility for our lives and feelings
  • thinking for ourselves (having an independent mind)
  • respecting oneself
  • accepting oneself
  • loving and feeling compassionate toward ourselves
  • adopting and honoring only standards and expectations for ourselves that are humane and reasonable
  • doing what is truly best for ourselves (which is often different from what we impulsively feel like doing)
  • treating ourselves well
  • ensuring that others treat us well

6. how one treats oneself (nicely vs. poorly)

How we treat ourselves shows how we feel toward ourselves.  Many people treat themselves harshly since they fear that good treatment would encourage them to do unacceptable things (and because that is how they were treated in childhood by people who believed that same thing).  Excessive use of shame and guilt to punish ourselves supports the never-ending unhealthy cycle of trying to control desires, failing to control desires completely and doing something judged unacceptable, punishing oneself excessively, trying to control desires, etc., etc.  Doing what is truly best for oneself (which often requires not acting on desires) is a more compassionate method of self-control and makes ourselves allies of ourselves rather than enemies.

In trying to treat yourself better, you can practice by purposely doing one nice thing for yourself every day and telling yourself three times a day that you love yourself (preferably in a mirror).

7. being generally accepting or generally contentious with respect to
life experiences and circumstances

You can choose to be accepting regarding yourself, others, and our human life (a positive attitude), rather than always resisting or fighting against aspects of yourself or the environment that you don’t like (a negative attitude).  Being accepting is more compassionate toward yourself and others than being rejecting and will make you feel better about yourself.  (This does not require you to accept bad treatment from others, since your primary responsibility in life is to take good care of yourself, partly so that you can take good care of others.)

Acceptance is recognizing things as they are and letting them be, instead of denying them or pushing them away.  Acceptance does not mean always giving in and going with the flow, but it means allowing things to be as they are without being needlessly or excessively upset, even if you still act to change things or make things as good as they can be.  When you have done as much as you choose to do to make things as you want them to be, then it’s best to accept how things are without fretting about them not being exactly the way you want.

Many people fear that accepting themselves will cause them to stop trying or doing their best, thinking that only being beaten or threatened can motivate them, and this betrays that their motivation is mainly external, that they do things only because others want them to, which is a position that is bound to create resentment and rebellion.  However, if you are always trying to do what is truly best for yourself, you are exerting control and directing yourself in your best interest, toward things that you want, which is highly motivating and makes you into a friend for yourself rather than an enemy.

8. seeking knowledge to help one to make decisions vs. fearing
knowledge and preferring tradition

We can choose to know rather than not to know.  Knowing more enables us to make better choices in general, since from our greater knowledge we can conceive of more options and can better predict outcomes.  Adding to our knowledge also helps us to understand ourselves, others, and human life.  Knowing more will thus help us to better achieve our goals for living.

Knowing and gaining knowledge are hindered by people choosing not to know certain unpleasant things, such as the deterioration of one’s marriage or law-breaking by one’s children, by avoiding thinking about them and by using “defenses” such as repression and denial.  Some people prefer not to have to attend to or deal with new information about the larger world around them, instead only learning new information that is most related to their current lives (a new music group, a new bus line, a new movie, a new video game).  Avoiding the unpleasant and learning only what seems immediately relevant unfortunately leave the individual basing decisions on poor data and unable to take full advantage of what people have learned in past generations, as well as unprepared to deal with a wider array of unanticipated events and consequences.

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable” is a fairly accurate prediction.  People avoid the truth because they fear the difficult implications of knowing the truth (acknowledging that the marriage is in trouble, turning in a relative to the police, quitting one’s job), so in order to seek the truth about things we must believe that knowing the truth will lead us in directions that will in the long run be best for us.  In other words, even though it may be difficult to take the actions implied by knowing the truth, ultimately doing so will be best for us.

9. whether to see the truth about one’s own motives and behavior

A very important aspect of knowing the truth is knowing the truth about oneself, especially one’s motives and the true reasons for one’s actions.  We naturally tend to hide our more selfish or disreputable motives from ourselves as well as from others, but being honest about them can allow us to truly choose how we want to live.  Treating others as basic equals leads both to not treating others unfairly and taking advantage of them but also to better relationships, greater trust, and more cooperation.  We can choose to give up some of our gains from selfish or harmful behavior in order to have the gains of better relationships (or we can choose not to—it’s your choice!).

10. feeling all of our feelings

Many people choose to ignore, deny, or repress some emotions (shame, guilt, disappointment, sadness) so they don’t have to deal with certain things (most often relationship problems and self-esteem implications), but this always leads to poor choices and to lost opportunities to fix problems in their lives.  You can have a better life by learning to feel your feelings but not let them overwhelm you, and we must learn how to allow them to “be” without having to get rid of them.  This takes faith and some endurance, but it is very possible, and it will expand your humanity as you interact with yourself and with others.

We can choose to feel all of our emotions and other feelings, or we can ignore and push aside many of them.  Having all of the information that your feelings can provide to you gives you an advantage when making decisions, even though it will also be to your advantage to resist simply acting on your feelings without fully considering your actions.

11. wanting to manage one’s life vs. letting one’s life  “happen” on its
own path

You can choose to take charge of your life (to be responsible for yourself)–in particular, to think for yourself and to choicefully shape your life to be what you want it to be, or you can go with the flow and the crowd, becoming the person that they expect you to be instead of the person that does the best that you can do for yourself.  It’s easier to just go along and do what is expected by others, but it will lead you into many actions and circumstances that won’t feel right and won’t be right for you.  To think for yourself requires that you be able to stand up for what you know is right, even when others disagree.

As part of being responsible for your life, you choose to support yourself as an adult rather than seek to get others to take care of you for your whole life.  Naturally we all need help from time to time, but you will feel better about yourself and have better relations with others if you earn your daily bread through your own efforts.  It is a basic tenet of all societies that everyone should contribute to the total effort to maintain individual life and the life of the group, and you will earn disapproval and contempt if you do not do your part.  What each person can contribute varies from person to person, and some need more from the group than others do, but the principle remains the same—everyone is expected to contribute.

12. whether to take all future consequences of behavior and the
impact of one’s behavior on others into account when making
decisions vs. putting more weight on immediate consequences

Many actions fail because the person ignored future consequences of the chosen action, including the impact of that action on others and how they would react.  Total emphasis is placed on the immediate goals of the action, and future results are ignored.  If those future results are inconsequential, then this model of behavior choice will work adequately, but if those future results could blot out the value of the immediate results, then ignoring those future consequences is fundamentally flawed.

Focusing too much on the immediate goal (getting the candy bar, looking good to someone else, getting a parent’s permission to go somewhere that evening) is characteristic of children and immature adults, and taking into account all future results requires more adult restraint and usually involves choosing a method of getting the immediate result that is more complicated or requires more effort in order to avoid future negative consequences.  Ignoring future consequences can be devastating.  When we get the candy bar by stealing it, the punishments of getting caught and the loss of the trust of others are worse than the positive results of immediately having the candy bar.  If in trying to look good, we gossip nastily about a friend, the loss of the friend when he or she finds out is worse than keeping our mouths shut and finding some other way to look good.  The benefits of lying to our parents about where we are going that evening and therefore being able to go are usually smaller than the losses we incur when our parents find out and are disappointed in us (and ground us for a while).

The major errors in placing too much emphasis on future consequences are (1) failure to recognize the future consequences because we don’t understand what is likely to happen and (2) failure to imagine those consequences in their full impact on us.  If we are uncertain of those future consequences and hope they won’t happen, it is easy to down play them.  We can do better if we are interested in learning about all of the possible consequences of various actions, which we can do through reading, TV, or movies, as we observe what happened to others in various circumstances, and which we can do through consulting with others about their experiences and what they would predict is likely to happen from the action that we would like to take.  We can also do better by taking future consequences seriously and making them real to us in our imagination of possible consequences, even though making them real may result in us abandoning our proposed action and having to figure out another one.

To make use of your realistic view of future consequences, you must be comfortable looking ahead, planning in order to achieve your goals, putting off some gratifications that you could have right now, and building toward your goals, one day at a time, without faltering.  Life is arranged such that larger goals take more time and effort, and if you go after only what you can easily get right now (sex with a hot girl, a job at a fast food place), you will probably miss out on some larger potential rewards (a satisfying marriage with the right woman, a better paying job that requires more education).  The short-run view is that you will get more out of life by taking whatever you can right now, by taking advantage of others if necessary.  The long-run view is that you will get more out of life by delaying some gratifications as needed in order to build toward larger goals and by having good relationships with others, which requires foregoing your own immediate rewards at times so that others can have their rewards sooner (so that you can achieve even larger goals in the future).

A key future consequence of almost all of our actions is how others will react to us if we take those actions.  We can take others’ reactions into account either as a simple instrumental calculation (what will they do to me?) or as a relational issue (how will they feel, and how will I feel about causing them pain?).  If you use the relational approach, then you must have some empathy for others, so that you can feel what they might feel in reaction to your action.

In the long run, you will gain more rewards and get more out of life if you take others’ needs and feelings into account when you act, trying not to harm them and sometimes allowing them to meet their needs at the expense of your own immediate gains. There are several reasons why this principle is true.  (1) If you are mindful of the needs and feelings of others and take their desires seriously, they will view you more positively and will be more inclined to take your needs and feelings seriously, too.  If they view you as an ally, they will be more likely to be nice to you.  (2) You can get more out of life by cooperating with others, since alone you can’t do very much!  (3) If you have empathy and take others’ needs and feelings into account, then you have the fundamentals for being able to have satisfying relationships with others, and you are more likely to be happy.  There are a few people who feel nothing positive from relating to others in cooperative and supportive ways, but the vast majority of us feel gratified, encouraged, supported, understood, and/or loved from having good relationships with others, and the satisfaction and fulfillment that we get from good relationships is what most people come to see as the most important rewards in their entire lives.

13. how much to control one’s emotions and behavior

You can choose to control your behavior in ways that serve your chosen goals, or you can allow your emotions and desires free rein to determine your behavior without using your capacity for anticipation and thought.  Most often people choose self-control after they see the consequences of not exerting control, in terms of increased violence, conflict, and hurt feelings.  Having self-control enables you to choose whether to speak or act rather than speaking or acting “without thinking,” which often results in hurting others as well as unfortunate consequences for you.  You can establish a habit of pausing to actually decide what to do rather than acting impulsively.  Good self-control can show others that you can be responsible and trustworthy.  (Spontaneity is also a part of a healthy life, but it is best if you are spontaneous within areas or limits that you have predetermined, given the physical and social environment at the moment, rather than letting go of all boundaries.)

14. whether to have a generally positive vs. a generally negative
attitude toward others

Since we are so dependent on others’ work, feelings, and attitudes toward us, it is very useful to have a generally positive attitude about other people.  Having generally good experiences with parents and others leads us to have generally positive attitudes toward others, while having largely negative experiences with others leads in the opposite direction.

You can move your general feeling toward the positive by (1) ensuring that your negative feelings and attitudes are confined to people who have treated you badly.  We human beings tend to generalize inappropriately and may adopt a negative attitude toward everyone when we have only been treated badly by one-fourth of the people we have known.  (2) Seeing others realistically and accepting them for who they are (see above regarding acceptance).  (3) Trying your best to produce good outcomes for yourself in all of your interactions with others, so that your general attitude toward others will become more positive.  To do this successfully requires understanding people and their needs and feelings, developing social skills (being comfortable with others, conversation, cooperation, etc.).

15. whether to seek an empathic understanding of others (to “feel,”
to some degree, what they feel) vs. protecting yourself from
others’ feelings by remaining ignorant

Empathy (the ability to feel, know, and/or appreciate what another person is feeling, thinking, or experiencing without being directly informed of it by the other person) is the human ability that is most helpful to us in our efforts to have good relations with others and to live together harmoniously and productively.  Empathy helps us to anticipate the reactions of others to various behaviors we might choose to do, so that we can then choose behaviors that will be most to our advantage.  Empathy makes possible accepting others as they are, and it also makes possible (but is not sufficient for) choosing as our behaviors those that do not harm others and behaviors that benefit both ourselves and others.  (Without this empathic appreciation of others’ subjective experience, reason easily gets off course.)  Empathy also helps us to understand ourselves better, since we can see and relate to things in others that are similar to our own thoughts, feelings, needs, and motives.

Having empathy involves both emotional and cognitive components. We resonate with the other person’s expressions of emotions, and we also perceive the other person’s situation and place ourselves in that situation in order to imagine what the other person is feeling or otherwise experiencing.  We observe the cues from others in words, voice patterns, posture, movements, and facial expressions, and putting this together with what we perceive and what we know historically about the person’s current situation and concerns, we intuit or imagine and partially experience what that person is feeling and thinking.  This is a complicated process, and empathy is often only partially accurate and sometimes wrong.

In order to have empathy for others, we must we willing to experience, at least to some degree, what the other person is experiencing.  Also, in order for us to make sense of what we experience of another person’s experience, we must have some familiarity with the sorts of things that the other person is experiencing.  Therefore, self-awareness provides the foundation for empathy, since in empathy we respond from our own past experience to cues that we think are telling us what others are thinking and feeling.   If we are not in touch with our own emotional experience, then we cannot make sense of the other person’s emotions.  An important next step is to adjust our initial impressions, that are based on our similarities to the other person and her experience, using our knowledge of how we are different from her and how her circumstances are different from our own.

The typical difficulties we encounter in having accurate empathy are (1) not correctly perceiving another person’s situation, (2) not being familiar with the feelings likely to be associated with that situation (3) not wanting to feel the same painful or unpleasant feelings that the other person is feeling, (4) being afraid of being too close to others, (5) fearing that having empathy will mean that one will always give in to others’ needs, and (6) assuming that others feel and think the same way we do about the world (which they do not).  Each of these factors can be overcome, if we are determined to do so.  We can work to understand others better, broaden our own range of emotions, learn to tolerate painful emotions better, become comfortable being close to others (and able to protect ourselves from harm by others), and learn to be appropriately assertive.

Many errors in empathy arise from incorrectly interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because we believe that they react to stimuli and situations more or less as we do ourselves.    We must realize that others probably feel differently about things than we do and not assume that they feel the same as we do.  We imagine ourselves in their situation and note how we would feel, but we must then adjust our empathic understanding for the ways in which the other person is different from us.  Taking differences into account is especially important with a person from another culture or background, since that person will almost certainly have different assumptions than we do about the meaning of events and about how people are expected to feel about them.  The more ways in which the other person is different from us that we can take into account, the more accurate our empathy will be.

Having accurate empathy allows us to gladly join with others in their experience when we want to and withdraw from it when we wish.  It allows us to feel gratified when we affect the experience of others positively by our behavior, and it helps us to remember that we are basically similar to each other, having the same needs and emotions as everyone else.

16. how one treats others (nicely vs. poorly)

You can choose to treat others well, or you can look constantly for ways to take advantage of others—telling the truth and being responsible, friendly, and helpful, rather than lying and deceiving, breaking your promises, and demeaning others to get your way.  If you pay attention, you can discover that always treating others well produces a better life for you over the long haul than trying to take things from others inappropriately.  Your resentment and anger about how you have been treated in the past may prompt you to want some compensation through taking from others, but treating others badly results in them distrusting you, refusing to cooperate with you, and trying to take advantage of you, too.

If you wish to gain better relationships by treating others well, you can (1) learn to know and manage your emotions effectively, (2) nurture a generally positive attitude toward others, with generally positive expectations of others, (3) be honest with others, (4) be responsible in your interactions with them, (5) adopt a loving and compassionate attitude toward others, (6) be accepting of others, (7) cooperate willingly and helpfully, (8) treat others fairly at all times, (9) develop your empathy skills, (10) be understanding, (11) develop effective self-control, (12) be able to be emotionally close when you choose to be, and (13) seek good outcomes for both yourself and others from all of your behaviors.

17. how emotionally close to others to be

You can choose to allow yourself to feel emotionally close with others, instead of protecting yourself from hurt by staying distant.  This is especially difficult for men in our culture, since so many men adhere to the “strong, silent” and in-no-way-feminine ideal for men, partly because this protects them from the problems and potential hurt of closeness.  Even if you have been badly hurt early in life by hurtful and irresponsible persons who were supposed to be taking care of you, it will still be better for you to seek closeness (with the right people).  This will require taking some risk, but you should only take that risk with persons who are honest and responsible, can accept you, and who view you as an equal.

18. whether to seek to get what you want through cooperation
with others to benefit everyone, or to seek to get what you  want
through taking advantage of others whenever possible

You can choose to deal with others cooperatively or competitively.  Cooperation leads to more harmonious relationships and to being able to achieve more than you can by yourself.  Competition leads toward more conflict with others but also to the satisfactions of “beating” or “besting” others.  The attitudes used in cooperation encourage alliances and bonding, while the attitudes used in competition encourage always looking for one’s own advantage and, for many people, taking advantage of others whenever possible (through lying, cheating, misleading, “white lies,” emotional blackmail, etc.).  Many people engage in both cooperation and competition in degrees that depend on the particular situations at hand. Most people cooperate to some degree in their own groups (families, businesses, nations) while those groups are competing more than they are cooperating with one another.

The key insight in understanding cooperation is that we can pursue our own goals and at the same time help others to reach theirs.  Because of the multiplying effect of many people working together and because cooperation builds positive relationships, cooperation will get you more in life than you would if you ignored others’ needs and feelings and just tried to reach your own goals.  In other words, self-interest and altruism are not necessarily in conflict.  By attending to others’ needs and feelings and helping them to reach their goals, you will be enabled to reach more of your own goals.

In order to make this principle work for you, you must, as noted already above, have adequate empathy for others and must be able to understand what they want.  You must develop skills in cooperating–knowing how to get things done while working with others.  This involves communicating effectively; negotiating mutually desirable goals; compromising satisfactorily as necessary; integrating your contributions with those of others in accomplishing tasks; making sure that everyone benefits from the enterprise; and not angering and alienating others while working together so that they withdraw from the enterprise before you get what you want!  You must be comfortable allowing others at times to get what they want before you get what you want, and you must know how to choose those times wisely, so that others feel that you are taking their needs seriously.

Many people avoid cooperation and sharing because in childhood they viewed doing this as giving up something, usually because parents strong-armed them into sharing in order to maintain the approval of the parents of other children or in order to maintain peace in the household between siblings.  We were urged by our parents to “be nice” and let the other kid play with our toys, because they wanted us to appear to be “nice.”  We felt that to be nice to others or put their needs ahead of ours was to lose.  We were raised to be nice to others through guilt and power.  This still feels unfair and as if we are giving up something for nothing in return.  So, we resent being “nice,” because we think being “nice” is done only for show, and we think we are better off being selfish whenever possible.  We must recast this thinking so that we see that by being considerate of others and helping them, we will gain more in the long run.

As children, after we learn to pretend to be “nice,” the next step in this ladder of learning is “taking turns,” where we recognize that we can avoid conflict by equalizing our benefit with that of others.  The highest step in the ladder is gaining some pleasure ourselves from others reaching their goals or having their gratifications, through empathic sharing in their pleasure and through anticipating the benefit that we will gain later from the fact that they have been gratified.  If we remain in the “child position” of doing what is “good” or “right” because someone else is making us do it, then we will continue to resent sharing and letting others gain, but if we take over setting our own rules according to what is best for us, we have the chance to leave that resentment behind and to happily cooperate and help others to gain as well as ourselves because it just plain works better in many respects.


Take some time now to consider where you stand on these major life choices.

1. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic?

2. Are you generally happy or sad about being alive?

3. Are you stimulated by and interested in life and in yourself, or are you often bored?

4. How is your overall happiness and success being affected by your understanding of how we come to be alive and why we are here?  Do these ideas determine or limit your conception of yourself or determine or limit your life choices?

5. How do you feel about yourself?  Are you generally happy with yourself and with being who you are?

6. Do you treat yourself well?  Do you treat yourself considerately and lovingly?  Do you take good care of yourself?

7. Are you generally accepting or often rejecting of yourself, others, and life?

8. Are you enthusiastic about seeking knowledge to help you in life, or are you afraid of new knowledge and of what you might discover?

9. Do you honestly try to see the truth about your own motives and behavior?  Would you prefer to just ignore it?

10. How much of your emotions and feelings do you allow yourself to feel?

11. Do you work hard to manage your life and shape your behavior toward getting what you want, or are you inclined to let things develop and see what comes along in life?

12. Do you take all future consequences of your behavior and the impact of your behavior on others into account when making each decision, or do you downplay those factors?

13. Do you have appropriate control over your emotions and behavior?  Is your control excessive?  Is it too weak?

14. Do you have a generally positive or a generally negative attitude toward others?

15. Do you try to understand how others feel, or does that seem like too much to expect of yourself?

16. Do you treat others well?  Is that because of what you want from them or because you understand how they feel?

17. Are you able to be emotionally close to some others?

18. Do you seek to get what you want through cooperation with others to benefit everyone, or do you seek to get what you want through taking advantage of others whenever possible?


Clearly there is much to think about in this essay, since these ideas are affecting your life every day.  The key choices that we can consciously make, such as the ones discussed here, that will support our efforts to learn new skills, become more adaptive, and have better lives all “make sense,” but in the beginning they are also to some degree matters of faith, since we usually have to choose and affirm them and try to practice them before we know for certain that they will pay off for us.  You will have to try them out for a while in order to know.

It will be of interest at this point for you to identify the approach and skills that you have emphasized so far in your life in trying to get what you want in life.  Take some time, and use the spaces below to jot down your ideas about this.


What approach and specific skills do you emphasize to ensure your survival and your ability to take care of those who are legitimately dependent on you?







What do you do in order to have only a minimal or at least no more than a tolerable level of physical pain and bodily damage?









What do you do to have some pleasure and pleasant emotion in your life?










How do you relate to yourself?  How do you treat yourself?







What do you do to have minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional pain and internal conflict?  How do you manage your feelings?










What do you do to feel secure?








How do you go about having gratifying relationships with others?









What goals do you have in addition to the fundamental goals above?  For example, you might place great emphasis on physical pleasures, or you might be in a relatively rebellious phase of life, in which you need to go against much of what you have been taught in order to establish your own firm identity (which is fine as long as you aren’t directly harming others as you do this).  Are you sure in your heart that your added goals are good for you?

Other goals:







Methods/Approaches that you use to seek fulfillment of these other goals:










What values do you believe are most important?












Identify the most important virtues that you believe are helpful and healthy.











What kind of person do you want to be?














Considering all of the above, do you think that your chosen goals are the best ones for getting you what you really want in life?  Would you like to add or change some goals?








Finally, think about whether your habitual ways of doing things (the methods you use to reach your goals) are the best ways to help yourself reach those goals.  If you have a gun in the house, it could serve to protect your belongings, but it doesn’t help much with that when you are out of the house, when locking the doors would work better, or if you try to get attention in order to feel better about yourself, you might do better in the long run to figure out why you don’t feel good about yourself and use that to establish better, basic acceptance and love for yourself.









Are your goals and methods consistent with one another?  A method in one area can work against success in another area.  If you use competing and winning as your method of meeting your basic survival goals, it will probably take away from your closeness opportunities, since no one wants to be close with someone who is competing with him or her.









Are your needs or your focus on various goals excessive?  Too much physical pleasure, too much security, or too much escape (alcohol, drugs, entertainment, etc.) can work against meeting your other goals.






Make some notes for yourself about changing some of your goals and about more adaptive methods that you would like to develop and use in trying to meet your needs and goals.  In the future you can be more alert to how your choices of goals and methods are working for or against you and use that awareness to make adjustments more quickly!

More information about truth, wisdom, love, acceptance, and interpersonal relationships can be viewed on the author’s website


Ebbe, Christopher.  How To Feel Good About Yourself:  12 Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem.   Claremont CA:  Christopher Ebbe, 2003.