Mindfulness and self-awareness are the latest craze in mental health, while French philosopher Albert Camus said we must not ‘be too concerned with others’ in order to be happy. But does focusing on our own happiness mean dismissing other people in the process?
A couple of days ago, Psychologies Magazine UK tweeted a quotation by the existentialist writer Albert Camus, saying “To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.” My initial reaction to this was unsure. On the one hand, despite all his potentially depressing, aimlessly existentialist view of the world, I generally agree with much of Albert Camus’s writings, and while clearly not espousing the most extreme reductio ad absurdum elements of his stories (such as the senseless shooting in L’Etranger), I remember a sense of relief upon studying his work at school that I wasn’t the only one to think that life was ultimately without some higher purpose – although, thankfully, I have since also decided that lack of overall purpose is not tantamount to lack of meaning. In one way though, yes, in order to be happy, a certain amount of introspection is clearly needed.
But a flash of memory brought that other existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’ phrase bounding around my brain with unwelcome ferocity. While sometimes appearing to be a dart of truth skewering whichever maddening crowd you happen to be sandwiched within at any given desperate moment, for me this sentence more often serves as a glowering reminder that total surrender to completely anti-social tendencies is not just remarkably unfriendly, it’s also one of the many roads towards staying-in-all day-asleep-under-your-own-black-cloud of depression. But does ‘not being concerned with others’ mean ignoring them and being unfriendly – or does it just mean focusing on yourself? Does doing the latter automatically lead to the former? Do you need to focus on yourself to the exclusion of others to truly be happy?
Indeed, it seems that much of the secret to mental health resides in one’s ability to switch off from the outside world. In today’s society, stuffed to the seams with information, sales pitches, insidious marketing, media pressures, financial woes and a whole host of other, relentless demands, taking quality time for oneself seems an elusive goal. ‘Me time’ is widely considered necessary by many in these testing times, and the current popularity and respect of the concept of ‘Mindfulness’ and proto-Buddhist meditation as a route towards serenity is gathering (measured) pace not only within the halls of clinical psychology departments but also on high-street bookshelves across the country. The idea that people need time to themselves no longer looks to be the shocking idea that it once was – but does all this self-reflective, meditative time, and our awareness that we need it to function, mean that our relationships with the outside world are compromised?
The merits of mindfulness
As a recent convert, I have found mindfulness to be wonderful. The application of its simple, key tenet – that one should breathe deeply and focus on the here and now – to a frenetic lifestyle can mean the difference between sliding hazardously back towards the black hole of depression, and having the tools to take a step back, appreciate the moment, savour all senses, focus on the positives, love life in that instant no matter the circumstance, and move the mind out of the pressure cooker’s heat into the cool breeze of quiet control. But it does require introspection and deep sense of connection with oneself. You can’t really reflect properly on your own breathing patterns and mind awareness if you’re constantly and actively caring about other people, and what they’re doing, thinking or feeling. The sweet focus of a mindful outlook, allowing self-awareness and renewed perspective, seems by definition to be one which filters out all unnecessary distractions. Is this what Camus meant when he talked about being ‘concerned with others’? An ability to ignore all negative external judgements on your life and continue unhindered along the journey that you feel brings happiness?
If so, so far, so good, right? It’s often difficult to do, but tuning in to your inner radio waves, and mustering the courage to do what you think is best, guided by self-awareness and quiet conviction, perhaps having thought long and hard about your options, or even simply accepting your situation without judgement or hostility, is, I believe, a sure path to an enhanced sense of identity and peace in a world pulling in a thousand directions.
Does achieving serenity mean being cut off?
But in my own experience, this can go too far the other way. Developing a habit of introspection, of self-awareness, of a need to consider all issues around a subject, of taking a step back and retaining complete peacefulness, can often render you at odds with the outside world. You’re serene, yes, but ultimately, cut off. For all its benefits, mindfulness, or at least, mindfulness as I see it or that I’ve achieved so far, doesn’t at first glance seem especially compatible with a raucous, possibly ill-advised night out with work colleagues; with constant chatting, smiling and socialising; with the in-the-moment concentration that a demanding job, public transport negotiations or the meeting of new people needed in everyday life. Asking my mind to reflect, in a Buddhist-like, meditative manner, on the minutiae of the world around me gives me enormous strength, but I also find myself disregarding others perhaps more readily that I would had I not discovered such a powerful means of standing on my own two feet. In the strengthening of my mind and independence, in developing a system that allows me to rely on myself and not on others, in putting faith in my own thoughts, I often feel as if welcoming others, and their various flaws, foibles and alternative views on the world, their careless actions or potentially hurtful remarks, into my carefully guarded, fragile juggling act of happiness may cause me to slip, and see it all come crashing down around me.
Maybe everyone has days when they don’t feel especially sociable, when they purposefully walk a tiny bit quicker out the door to avoid having to chat with that slightly awkward colleague, when they feign involvement in a particularly fascinating text or keep their eyes resolutely downwards so they don’t have to engage with that person on the street or the train, but a part of me thinks that, my usually split personality of being extremely gregarious and happy to talk some days, and extremely reticent, shy and anti-social on others, might actually be exacerbated by the mindfulness and self-awareness I’m training myself to believe is imperative for my own mental health. Without due care, could Camus’s demand for us to not be too concerned with others translate into a slight lack of interest in them as well?
On balance, it is with some reluctance that I admit that no, practising mindfulness and a healthy disregard for what others think doesn’t necessarily mean being dismissive of them. Although I certainly believe that mindfulness does encourage a certain distance from the constant chatter of the outside world, it strikes me that the periodical rising of my defences (some might say stubbornly bloody-minded anti-socialness, or, as I prefer, good old-fashioned grumpiness) despite knowing that sometimes, I can happily chat to others for hours, may in fact be a reflection of the challenges of living in one of the world’s biggest cities; a lack of sleep; a symptom not of my successful mindfulness, but of my own still-existing insecurities. Should an impassioned sense of my own self-awareness not actually enhance my ability to mingle with others, to accept others’ opinions with even-handedness, to embrace social situations with confidence and lightness, and laugh and talk with anyone, rather than consider them from behind a frosted window of my own making?
More mindfulness, not less
Indeed, I know I’m feeling absolutely terrible mind-wise when I can’t walk down a street without wanting to hide, without looking at every single person there and comparing myself unfavourably with them, strangers as they are. To rein yourself in, to focus on the positive and on the present, can provide the antidote, and it’s not for nothing that Oxford University’s Dr. Mark Williams packed out a recent School of Life event with members of the public (including myself), explaining to them the same mindfulness principles as those that he teaches to mental health patients with suicidal tendencies. Doesn’t it seem logical that a continued desire to hide away actually points to a need to practise more mindfulness, to allow insecurities and problems to run through you and not overwhelm you to the point of rejection of the outside world?
Mindfulness can be challenging, and requires an ability to harness your mind against the bottomless chasm of chatter your mind is constantly churning over and over, sometimes, it seems, for good reason. But surely, any sense I may have that controlling my mind in this way is cutting me off from others simply points to the fact that on some days I find it harder to embrace mindfulness, and, in Camus’s words, abandon ‘concern’ for other people, than on others. It’s not a solution, or a silver bullet, but to live well in this world, to get on with others, to avoid appearing rude or dismissive, we need to maintain our own sense of inner purpose and ‘mindfulness’ without alienating those who at first glance seem to have little to do with it.
Sometimes the best pleasure can come from smiling at someone we don’t know; from striking up a chat with the shop assistant; from engaging a fed-up looking colleague in much-overdue conversation; in sharing snatched and amusing eye-contact with another passenger when a kid says something funny in the carriage, when something otherwise embarrassing takes you by surprise. Random acts of kindness, as nerve-racking as they might at first seem, can actually provide the hundreds and thousands on the icing of the cake of life, and make someone’s day. It’s no secret that pretending to be cheerful can improve your mood until you genuinely feel it, and that talking to someone rather than bottling it all up can be the best tonic to a terrible day.
In fact, letting other people in to your mental sanctum doesn’t have to constitute a threat to your carefully arranged emotional health; it can also add to the party, and reinforce the confidence-boosters you’ve set up in the first place. Perhaps, rather than agreeing with his compatriot that ‘hell is other people’, Camus was actually merely pointing out that happiness must first come within – from an inner peace and personal belief, regardless of what some others may think. From where I’m standing, that doesn’t mean advocating a rejection of other people altogether, as tempting as it may sometimes seem.
To me, Camus’s statement, at first glance rather abrasive, and a justification for my grumpy moods, actually sounds like a gentle reminder that a little bit of positive thinking, quiet contemplation and crucially, self-belief, is the key to the confidence and conviction allowing you to engage with the world, not shut it out. In fact, knowing when to, and when not to, focus on ‘concern for others’ seems like an essential, if challenging, skill for modern life – and, if properly practised, should actually result in a heightened, and not depleted, self-awareness, improving your mood immeasurably in the process. By definition, self-awareness only makes sense when considered in comparison to awareness of others.
So, it looks like I need to find another excuse for my grumpiness. But that, I feel, might be a whole other blog.