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Self, Selflessness, and the Get-Happy-Quick Scheme

The strong link between mindset and mood.

Key points

  • Happiness involves a mix of caring for self and others.
  • Pure self-focus results in self-focused behaviors.
  • Investment in others is a healthy method of improving one's own well-being.
Image by 3652586 from Pixabay
Source: Image by 3652586 from Pixabay

When asked what they would wish for if they could have anything, many people rattle off the usual short list: money, perfect health, a blissful marriage, etc. Yet when we think about it carefully, one of the things most people crave above and beyond their circumstances is a positive mindset. One of life’s most precious goals, especially during times of personal challenge, is achieving true happiness. Happily, this goal is attainable.

The road to happiness begins within. In line with biblical wisdom advising us to look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:4) and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39), research reveals the success of the same combination.

Focus on Yourself and Others

Yunxiang Chen (2023) explored the link between self-focus and other-focus within the context of socializing and achieving well-being.[i] The study recognized self-focused and other-focused caring as autonomy and pro-sociality, respectively, seeking to compare the impact on happiness and life satisfaction. Chen identified four distinct groups: autonomous: high self-focused and low other-focused; prosocial: low self-focused and high other-focused; flourished: high self-focused and high other-focused; and indifferent: low self-focused and low other-focused. Results showed the flourished group had the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction, followed in order by the autonomous group, the prosocial group, and the indifferent group. Chen concluded that apparently, people with high self-focus who also exhibit high other-focused caring enjoy the highest level of well-being.

Mentor Motive Matters

Other research has examined self-versus-other focus within the realm of mentoring. Yongmei Liu et al. (2021), studied both formal and informal mentoring relationships to determine how relational focus impacts mentoring outcomes.[ii] Informal mentoring relationships are of particular interest because when companies or organizations lack formal structure or policies dedicated to career development, supervisors and peers often become unofficial mentors to new employees.

As a result of their research, Liu at el. suggest that perhaps not surprisingly, self-focused motivation prompts self-focused behaviors. They explain that such behaviors are characterized by a higher degree of sensitivity to instrumental rewards, selective relationship initiation, and a calculated approach to relationship investment, creating outcomes that primarily benefit the mentor. They note that other-focused motives create other-focused behaviors, which include lower sensitivity to instrumental rewards, a greater amount of inclusivity in relational initiation, and a less calculated approach to relationship investment, creating a broader range of outcomes beneficial to individuals as well as the larger organization.

Loving Others as Well as Yourself

Both mentors and volunteers of all types can relate to the fact that it is impossible to focus on your own problems when you are actively helping someone else. Some philanthropically-minded enthusiasts joke that despite problems in their personal lives, diverting attention to others is a prescription for emotional health. So, if the ideal balance for personal wellness includes a bit of both worlds, a recipe for success likely includes a healthy dose of self-love combined with an altruistic focus on the needs of others.


[i] Chen, Yunxiang. 2023. “Self-Focused Autonomy, Other-Focused pro-Sociality, and Well-Being: A Cross-National Cluster Analysis.” Journal of General Psychology, November. doi:10.1080/00221309.2023.2281936.

[ii] Liu, Yongmei, Amine Abi Aad, Jamal Maalouf, and Omar Abou Hamdan. 2021. “Self- vs Other-Focused Mentoring Motives in Informal Mentoring: Conceptualizing the Impact of Motives on Mentoring Behaviours and Beneficial Mentoring Outcomes.” Human Resource Development International 24 (3): 279–303. doi:10.1080/13678868.2020.1789401.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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