You were born into a world that insists happiness is your core purpose, a universe in which your “self-esteem” is more important than anything else. Schools, books, popular culture all scream about happiness and “feeling good,” and “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are meant to prevent any possible harm to that happiness.
But if you ask me, self-esteem is rank nonsense. For one thing, it is terribly superficial, arguing that the highest purpose of people is nothing more than the pursuit of passing pleasures and the avoidance of any kind of pain. The greatest thinkers of humanity knew better. They knew that this was merely the most basic level of life, not its ultimate end.
Second, self-esteem is a notoriously unstable commodity. It is a bubble, which can be easily inflated by lots of Facebook likes and destroyed by a few nasty comments or critical words. To make even your happiness dependent on “self-esteem” is to live like you’re on an emotional roller coaster and in constant fear of any challenge, even one which may make you stronger.
So let me advise that you take a different path, one advised by those self-same great thinkers of humanity, and which was until recently a very American ethos: forget self-esteem and empty “happiness”—work on your virtue.
What is virtue? For our purposes, virtue refers to beliefs and actions which improve your conduct, attitude, and well-being. Their purpose is not to make you a happier person at all times but to make you a better one.
These can include physical virtues such as taking care of your health, becoming stronger, or using that strength to help others. There are also social virtues such as keeping your word, showing up on time, or avoiding profanity and the like. If you are religious, there are many virtues and codes of conduct to live by, and you can find the system that works best for you. Even if not, more serious secular humanists and pagan philosophers (Confucius, Aristotle, and others) have virtue systems worth looking into for the good life.
Why is virtue better than self-esteem?
For one thing, virtue is forward looking. Unlike self-esteem which is afraid of everything, the virtuous person is always advancing, always improving, always strengthening his mettle in the face of adversity. The virtuous person sees the world as a place to live in, not a Hell to escape from lest he be wounded.
For another thing, virtue is something entirely in your control. While self-esteem is very much defined by others and how they see and treat you, virtue is up to you. It is solely your responsibility and within your power to improve yourself through virtue and live through it. If every last person on earth stopped being your Facebook friend, you might lose your “self-esteem.” But you would still have your virtue, your character, and your self-respect.
Perhaps most importantly, virtue teaches you to work first and foremost on yourself and become a better human being. Self-esteem encourages narcissism and excessive vulnerability; virtue teaches humility, real self-respect, and genuine concern for others as such.
Many in your generation wonder how they’ll change the world. I’m a bit older than you, so let me tell you this: I have never seen anything more influential on the behavior of others than personal example, both good and bad. Personal example has probably made more of a difference in people’s personal lives than every op-ed ever written or empty Facebook status ever posted. Lead a virtuous life publicly and privately, and people will follow in your wake. That’s a “difference” that will last a lifetime, I assure you.
While your friends chase empty happiness, which naturally waxes and wanes, take your time and work on virtue and character. It will make you a better, more contented person long after the thrills of youth have gone.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.