Dave Stant – The Self-concept Approach to Happiness

The self-concept approach to happiness begins with the notion that your self-concept, or how you view yourself, is the key contributing factor to your happiness.

I have broken down the self-concept into two parts: identity and self worth. Identity is further broken down into two components: “who you are” and “what you are.” Both of these components also influence your feelings of self-worth.

Part of your self-concept deals with your identity, which includes “what you are,” or in other words, what you do for a living.  Part of the beauty of growing up in a developed nation is that we all have many choices in regard to what we become, and hopefully our work provides us with some type of satisfaction, whether intrinsic, extrinsic, or both:

– Intrinsic satisfaction is the reward we receive on the inside when we know we are doing a good thing for someone or something outside of ourselves.

– Extrinsic satisfaction may be considered slightly more self-serving, however, it is important that we take care of ourselves, and receiving external rewards, status for example, can play a very large role in determining how we view ourselves.

The second part of your identity is “who you are,” which includes your personality, character, and self-confidence level.  Your personality is something you are born with, which forms during childhood and continues to grow as you mature throughout adolescence and adult life. Personality can be broken down into many traits—introverted versus extroverted, for example—and influences all of your decisions in life.

Paula Lantz, "Attitude"
Paula Lantz, “Attitude”

Your character is shaped by your morals and values, which are further shaped by your socialization into the society in which you live. Character, like your personality, is broken down into many components: integrity and compassion being two of the many.  Your character determines many of your wants, hopes, and dreams, and how you will go about attaining them.

Although self-confidence is sometimes considered a personality trait, it is learned and built from an early age by having positive experiences and achieving goals. Self-confidence, in my opinion, should never become egocentric; it is always best to remain level headed about what happens in life.

Your sources of self-worth are as individual to you as the personality you are born with. It is a by-product of your identity as well as the other choices you make pertaining to all aspects of your life. Self-worth is a difficult concept to grasp and may best be explained through an example: first, you have an individual who is unhappy with themselves and their life at present. This individual is introverted (personality), believes in doing the right thing (character), and has a low self-confidence level. Because this individual is introverted, he may pursue a career that does not involve interacting with the public and may obtain great satisfaction from knowing that his work contributes to the wellbeing of others. Based on the self-concept theory, this individual will receive a sense of self-worth from the work he is doing, both because it suits his personality and is aligned with his morals— the increased self-worth will improve his self-confidence level.

Personality and character are about making choices in life and feelings of self-worth are a by-product of these choices. That’s not to say that someone else’s choices may be entirely different and he may be equally as satisfied. Feelings of self-worth don’t necessarily stem from your identity either. Your self-concept improves by your wants, hopes, and dreams occurring. Identity is actually what influences your wants, hopes, and dreams.

The first step in the self-concept approach to happiness is something every human being must do: meet his or her basic needs.  Basic needs include food, water, shelter, clothing, and sexual needs. Other than sexual needs, the first four require at least a subsistence level of income and for each individual to maximize his or her skills and talents in the workforce in an effort to meet their basic needs (and hopefully exceed those needs, so that they may focus part of their efforts on their wants).

[I would like to introduce two topics to the discussion at this point: quality of life and inequality, two topics that are interrelated. Unfortunately, in a developed society, some skills are valued higher than others; monetary worth of certain skill sets allows the quality of life to be greater for some individuals than others. This leads to inequality amongst the people living in these societies, which causes conflict between different groups of people, and also leads some people to lead relatively unhappy lives. However, happiness is possible for everyone, regardless of property or quality of life.]

There was a quote in my office once that stated, “Life is 10 % what happens to you and 90 % how you react to it.” Life is all about focusing on the things you can control. Some things, like how someone treats you, for example, are better left not to worry about. Treating someone poorly is a character flaw of the person who chooses to live that way. And in a society that places so much value on what one has, it is usually better not to compare yourself to other people.

The next step in the self-concept approach to happiness (after meeting your basic needs) is determining your wants. Wants are influenced by your personality, character, and socialization, and can constitute just about anything a person can imagine.  It is important to note that wants should never victimize others. They are about what we ourselves can attain and achieve. Wants include possessions, relationships (both friendships and romantic interests), and experiences, along with just about anything else.

So it is necessary to first think introspectively and do a self-inventory. You must discover what gives you feelings of self-worth— this depends upon your personality and character. Furthermore, you must think retrospectively and take a good, hard look at your life: the point is to look at social influences (upbringing, for example) and attempt to look beyond them and discover what is truly important to you. By focusing on what’s truly important, you are better able to set goals whose attainment will contribute most positively to your view of yourself. After determining the things you want in life, you can begin to set goals for yourself. Remember, it is always best to remain level headed and realistic.

Following the goal-setting process, the next component in self-concept theory is expectations. Based on our wants, we all have expectations of whether or not these wants will materialize. These expectations exist on a continuum, ranging from very high to very low, and consists of everything in between these two extremes. Again, it is important to consider your identity and what is truly important to you when figuring out your expectations of an event occurring.

The role identity plays in determining expectations is that it helps us draw conclusions about what is possible for us to attain or achieve. For example, if we are highly motivated by financial success and we have the skills to attain it, we may have higher expectations of attaining financial success. Conversely, if we are less motivated by financial success, and more motivated by helping others, then our expectations of attaining financial success might me much lower, and our expectations of impacting the lives of others would be much higher. When considering what is truly important to you, your expectations of achievement or attainment of outcomes vary based on your degree of motivation and skill levels (which are influenced by your identity and sources of self-worth).

Expectations of events occurring are also influenced by social influence and past experiences. Social influences on expectations include upbringing, friends, family, the society in which we live, and media, literature, and popular culture. First, your upbringing (in this case, the economic class in which you were born) and the careers of your parents probably play the largest role in determining your expectations. For example, if you came from a middle class family in which the primary breadwinner was a tradesman, not only would it be more likely that you’d become a tradesman yourself, but you would believe that this was attainable and you would most likely have high expectations of living a middle class life as an adult. I will comment that this concept is not universal; it is possible to have more than what your parents had, but it is the exception rather than the example.

Friends and family, although they care about you, have opinions and expectations with regard to the choices you make. They will influence your choices and expectations, as much as you’d like for them not to. Media, literature, and popular culture also creates imprints on the human mind, again, however much you’d like for them not to. These imprints influence your wants and your expectations of these wants to materialize. An example would be a popular hip hop artist with a similar background to yours; this may increase your expectations that you too can become a rap artist, unlikely as it may be. Socialization means learning and adopting the norms and values of a given society. Wealth attainment, for example, may appear more realistic in some societies than others.

Past experiences, any event you’ve already experienced, also factors into your expectations of wants occurring. Let’s say you made the traveling team for a youth athletic program when you were young; during your young adult years, you may have higher expectations of playing that sport in college. On the other hand, if your goal was to be an actor and you didn’t get a role in your high school play, your expectations of landing a professional acting role would be considerably low. In sum, your expectations of positive or negative outcomes will be similar to what you’ve already experienced and depends on what has already happened in your life.

So far I’ve discussed the self-concept: how self-concept and socialization influences what you want and expectations of wants occurring, along with what influences your expectations of your wants materializing. The last piece to the self-concept theory deals with outcomes, whether or not your wants actually occur. There are two types of outcomes– absolute and variable:

–       An absolute outcome something that either happens or it doesn’t. There is no degree to which this outcome occurs.  An example would be the possession of a specific product: having the car of your dreams would be an absolute outcome.

–       A variable outcome has a degree to which it occurs. For example, if you want a closer relationship with your significant other, you can attain a slightly better relationship or a slightly worse relationship as an outcome.

Here is the important thing to remember: outcomes will have a positive or negative contribution on your self-concept.  Desirable outcomes will have a positive contribution on your self-concept, while undesirable outcomes will have a negative. Knowing that how you view yourself is the key contributing factor to your happiness, the idea is to maximize desirable outcomes, while trying to eliminate as many undesirable ones as possible.

There are three dimensions upon which the self-concept theory rests:

–       The extent to which you want something

–       How high or low your expectations are of this want occurring

–       The degree to which a variable outcome occurs

All three of these variables will create a degree of influence on the positive or negative contribution to your self-concept, depending upon whether outcomes are desirable or undesirable.

How much you want something and how important it is to you will impact both your motivation to attain it, and how much the outcome of that want occurring will positively or negatively contribute to your self-concept. If you really want to marry your girlfriend and she says yes to your proposal, this will significantly contribute positively to your self-concept. However, if she denies you, this may significantly contribute to it negatively and may even trigger depression.

To reiterate, high expectations of a want occurring along with undesirable outcomes have negative contributions on your self-concept. Conversely, lower expectations of a want occurring and desirable outcomes create positive contributions. Variable outcomes exist on a continuum and are directly related to positive or negative contributions to your self-concept.

In the end, happiness is how we view ourselves and deal with our experiences, both negative and positive.

Dave Stant

Dave is a mental health consumer, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2007. He started working on his recovery and developed many insights into how and why people are or aren’t able to cope with certain disorders. He has spent the last 4 years facilitating support groups, giving presentations to student and community organization concerning mental health awareness, and teaching recovery education classes. His para-counseling and advocacy work has provided him with an enormous set of experiences and observations upon which his theory is based.

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