Can self-forgetfulness make us happier?
C. S. Lewis said of the humble person, “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
I’ve seen the truth of what Lewis and Tim Keller and others have discovered, experiencing my greatest happiness not simply when I think less of myself, but when I think of myself less. When I’m thinking most about Jesus and others, and least about me, I’m most fulfilled.
These lines from a novel ring true: “When you’re unhappy, you get to pay a lot of attention to yourself. And you get to take yourself oh so very seriously. Your truly happy people . . . don’t think about themselves very much. Your unhappy person resents it when you try to cheer him up, because that means he has to stop dwellin’ on himself and start payin’ attention to the universe. Unhappiness is the ultimate form o’ self-indulgence”.
People who think a lot about themselves and their plans for wealth and success—e.g., writing a bestselling book and being mentioned in the same sentence with Hemingway—tend to be unhappy.
However, people who think a lot about Christ and his grace, the great doctrines of the faith, and how to love and serve others tend to be happy people. By redirecting attention from ourselves to God, we adopt a right perspective that brings happiness. Just as I revise my writing to make it better, I must revise my beliefs and thought habits in light of God’s Word.
Happiness isn’t my exclusive goal, of course, but it’s certainly a welcome by-product.
Tim Keller writes, “Don’t you want to be the kind of person who, when they see themselves in a mirror or reflected in a shop window, does not admire what they see but does not cringe either? . . . Wouldn’t you like to be the skater who wins the silver, and yet is thrilled about those three triple jumps that the gold medal winner did? To love it the way you love a sunrise? Just to love the fact that it was done? You are as happy that they did it as if you had done it yourself. . . . This is gospel-humility, blessed self-forgetfulness.”
As commendable as such humility is, we can never achieve it simply by willing it to appear. Otherwise, we’ll be thinking about ourselves and our valiant attempts to be humble. What we need is to be so gripped by Jesus and his grace, so lost in his love, that we truly forget about ourselves.
Why would we want to think about ourselves, the lesser, when we can think about him, the infinitely greater? This happens directly, when we worship and serve him, and also indirectly, when we love and serve others for his glory.