Self-improvement, self-development, building the life you want for yourself… These can feel selfish, self-indulgent. After all, you are, by definition, trying to improve yourself.
But when you improve your life, you also improve the lives of the people around you.
It’s not about proselytizing or trying to convince other people to do what you’re doing. It is much subtler than that.
The people around you share part of your life. For your spouse or children, a very large piece of your life is their life too. And the strangers that you meet as you move through your life share a very small piece. Yet, we do share some part of our life with each and every person we interact with.
So when we improve our lives, when we are happier, when we feel better about our place in the world, we pass some of that on to each person that we meet.
How we change the world
My dad has said that my brother and I are his tools to change the world. His back tattoo even references that very idea.
Upon reading that, you might think that it’s an unfair burden to place on your child. Except, what my dad said is a simple statement of fact. By raising us to ask questions, to seek answers, to value learning and prize education, he aimed to give us a good life. If we are able to live a good life, we’ll improve the lives of the people who share our lives.
And if we can’t fix the world, (which is probably the case) we will pass along this lesson. That each of us can make a difference.
Pay it forward
This also reminds me of a movie that I saw with my parents when I was young, called Pay it Forward. I remember very little about the movie except that the lesson that it aimed to teach. If one person aims to help 3 people. And each of those three people help 3 people, then one person can make a big difference in the world.
This is how we change the world. When each of us, individually, works to improve our own life and the lives of those around us, that is how we change the world for the better.
So no, self-improvement is not selfish. When we improve our own life, we improve the lives of those around us.
Science is even on our side.
Mirror neurons are brain cells (neurons). These neurons allow us to literally feel what other people experience.1
These mirror neurons activate when we see other people perform certain actions, and they also activate when we move. This allows our brain to understand what we are thinking and feeling when we, for example, smile. So when we see someone else smile, and those mirror neurons activate, our brain understands what a smile means.
This also explains why children mimic what adults do. It is how they begin to learn what things mean. Is why babies, who have no understanding of language, can begin to understand their world.
Emotional contagion looks at how emotions spread in a group through the same lens as how contagious diseases – like a cold – spread through a group. Mirror neurons might even be at play here.
You’ve experienced this. There has been at least one time when you were feeling good – happy or content. And then someone entered the room. They were clearly upset, angry or frustrated. And your good mood slipped away. This is emotional contagion.
The cool thing is that it doesn’t just work to bring down the group. One person can also spread hope, joy, laughter. When someone smiles at you, you will usually smile back.
Emotional contagion can also be used intentionally. Actors will act with the intent to evoke emotions in their viewers. Counsellors will intentionally focus on feelings of care and empathy to help their clients feel safe. Motivational speakers will focus on their own enthusiasm to boost enthusiasm in their audience.
You tap into emotional contagion to understand the thoughts and emotions of others when you engage in conversation. To feel the emotions they feel and to better understand the context of the situations you are in.
We are not selfish for wanting to improve our lives. We are not selfish for trying to do the things we truly want to do.
By striving to live the life we want for ourselves, we also improve the lives of the people around us.
By taking care of ourselves, we increase our capacity to care for others.
Self-improvement is not self-indulgent.
You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.
If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.