On the Importance of getting over yourself

Looking out at ivy covering windows on a campus building

Sometimes aspects of human life, development, and experience that seem like they ought to go together fail to coincide. Good adults—people who work to be honest and fair, to establish loving and supportive homes and strong communities, to achieve important goals through their work or their engagement with various projects—can feel dramatically undernourished by these efforts. Highly successful adults (who may or may not be especially good people) can find their that their own achievements seem empty. Adults who work hard and successfully to make things better for other people can experience flattening burnout. Those who are exquisitely good at producing and safeguarding their own comfort and security—sometimes by working to build a solid network of support with friends or family members—find themselves bored or stifled by their very success at making things safe for themselves. They can feel isolated in the midst of their apparently strong social world. And, as has been noticed in many different ways and many different cultural contexts for many, many years, adults who try to pursue their own pleasure or happiness directly normally fail.


One of the central goals of our research project is to take notice of these and other ways that people can find themselves at odds with themselves, even when they appear to be, in many respects, highly functional, strongly self-directed, and significantly well-socialized. In spite of clear self-actualization, in spite of personal achievement on their own account or for the sake of others, in spite of their efforts to conform to many of the standards governing success in their private and professional lives, these people are neither enjoying themselves nor finding their lives fulfilling.


One traditional way of handling these cases of finding oneself at odds with oneself is to suppose that, e.g., those apparently good people are not really virtuous people, since truly virtuous people find joy and meaning in the results of their efforts to be good; that individual achievement, status, and power are at best incomplete goals; that, however important comfort and security are, they are not enough to make a life that feels like a life worth living; and that trying to go for pleasure or happiness directly represents a misunderstanding of the nature of real pleasure and true happiness. There is something to be said for all of these ways of addressing the kinds of conflict that begin to appear when people have worked very hard to build lives for themselves and then find themselves ill at ease in the lives that they have worked hard to build. Our project is working to go at this situation from a slightly different angle.


We are treating cases in which adults are ill at ease with the apparently good lives they have struggled to build as cases in which somehow virtue (broadly construed), happiness (at least in the guise of subjective satisfaction with oneself and one’s life), and a sense of meaning or purpose have come apart. A key question that we are asking ourselves, in and through our very different research modalities, is whether the missing ingredient in these busy, unfulfilling lives might be what some psychologists, sociologists, and medical practitioners call “self-transcendence.”


It is hard to find a single meaning of the term “self-transcendence” in the scientific literatures on the topic. One of the things we hope to do in our work is develop a better understanding of self-transcendence. The term seems to have come into some prominence in motivational psychology—psychology focused on human needs and goals—when Abraham Maslow added a new and higher level to his hierarchy of needs in the early 1960s. In the 1940s, Maslow had thought that there were five sorts of human needs basic to human life, and treated these as arranged hierarchically—at the base were biological needs, at the next level up, needs for safety and security, then social needs, then needs for self-esteem, and finally needs for self-actualization. A good human life was a life in which all of these needs were met.


Maslow tended to think of these needs as coinciding (more or less) with stages of psychological development, such that different stages were focused on meeting different needs, although he recognized that there were problems with this way of thinking about the hierarchy. Late in his career, he began to notice that it looked like there was a still higher level of basic human need—one that went beyond self-actualization. He named this level “self-transcendence.” As Mark Kolto-Rivera put it:


[Maslow’s] earlier model positions the highest form of motivational development at the level of the well- adjusted, differentiated, and fulfilled individual self or ego. The later model places the highest form of human development at a transpersonal level, where the self/ego and its needs are transcended. This represents a monumental shift in the conceptualization of human personality and its development. At the level of self-actualization, the individual works to actualize the individual’s own potential; there is thus, at least potentially, a certain self-aggrandizing aspect to this motivational stage, as there is with all the stages below it in Maslow’s hierarchy. At the level of self-transcendence, the individual’s own needs are put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others and to some higher force or cause conceived as being outside the personal self [“Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” in Review of General Psychology (2006), Vol. 10, No. 4: 306-307].


Some aspects of Maslow’s understanding of self-transcendence continue to inform the empirical psychological literature on the topic in unfortunate ways, however. For example, Maslow thought that self-transcendence was marked by what he called “peak experiences.” Peak experiences were experiences in which one seemed to be outside oneself, often merging with something beyond oneself. It is true that some forms of mystical religious experience, some profound experiences of nature, and so on, can feel like they dissolve the boundaries of the self. But so can delusional experiences and the kinds of experiences that come of taking hallucinogenic drugs. The difficulties with attempts to study self-transcendence as crucially involving peak experiences is that such studies can’t reliably distinguish an experience of the sacred in nature from the experience of acid trip or a psychotic delusion.


Accounts of self-transcendence as a feature of mature human development involving integrated awareness of one’s own values and aspirations (intrapersonal development), increased capacity to be aware of and relate to others and one’s environment (interpersonal development), an increased ability to integrate one’s understanding of the past and expectations for the future in ways that have meaning for the present, and broadened perspectives about one’s own life in its social and historical context (transpersonal development) have begun to shape literatures on nursing. Nurses working with geriatric patients and patients with serious cancer diagnoses have made important strides in developing accounts of entirely grounded, non-delusional self-transcendence. Nurses have a stake in thinking about aspects of human development that tend to give people strong attachments to their own lives and to equip people to make appropriate decisions about their own care. Not only do nurses fare better themselves if they understand their work in a self-transcendent context, they find that their patients who have developed strongly self-transcendent orientations have better health outcomes.


One hope of our work is to build from prior work on self-transcendence in ways that allow us to think about self-transcendence as pointing to a context in which efforts at moral self improvement—for example, ongoing cultivation of virtue—are situated in a way that goes beyond plain enlightened self-interest. We are asking ourselves (among other things) whether a self-transcendent orientation might be the missing link between work at living an ethically good life, a sense of purpose in life, and the kind of deep happiness that comes of a life oriented to goods that go well beyond self-actualization.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.