Can a Jerk be Happy?

People who place their own interests first or walk over others often seem to be more successful in securing career positions than those with a fine sense of fairness and consideration. The cliché of “nice guys finish last” may have some bearing in this regard. Overlooked nice guys may find some consolation in the thought that, while jerks may pass them on the career ladder, they won’t find “true” happiness. After all, jerks can’t have good relationships—and it is relationships that make us happy. Is this true, though? Can egomaniacs be selfish at work, but nice in relationships? Can jerks be happy?

Copyright by Armin Zadeh

Source: Copyright by Armin Zadeh

While these questions cannot be easily addressed with global answers—they depend on how we define “jerk,” “nice,” and “happy”— we can observe general patterns. I would surmise that all of us can be inconsiderate and selfish on occasion, particularly in moments without good reflection on our actions. Once we recognize that our move has negatively affected others, though, we typically regret our behavior and offer an apology. A jerk, however, displays selfishness and inconsideration more consistently—and without recognition of and/or remorse for their impact.

A person’s disposition ultimately depends on her/his worldview (i.e., how one sees oneself in relation to others). A sense of entitlement or superiority, as with an overtly narcissistic attitude, aligns with egotistic thoughts and actions; this person deems himself/herself more important than others. Such traits will be present regardless of the work or home environment. However, selfish people still recognize that they can’t entirely repel others with their attitude, because they mostly don’t want to be alone either. They can “play nice” enough or charm people enough to engage in superficial relationships. If a relationship becomes more long-standing, however, it will typically be centered around power and control struggles. Relationships work best for the egomaniac when he/she is paired with a submissive, devoted partner. But is the jerk happy in these relationships?

While I cannot speak for others’ sense of happiness, it is difficult to conceive of happiness under these circumstances when interpreting “happiness” as more than just moments of contentment. The “state of being happy,” on the other hand, is closely related to our perception of who we are—at our very core. In other words, happiness means we have found acceptance and love as independent individuals with strengths and weaknesses, who are neither more nor less worthy of love and acceptance than anyone else. Conversely, conscious or subconscious struggles with such acceptance typically result in anxiety and mental stress—obviously quite contrary to the state of happiness.

Since the source of selfishness or narcissism is often rooted in our failure to accept who we are, happiness indeed may be hard to achieve for jerks. Their fragile self-image is in constant search for affirmation from his/her environment. This is a stressful condition, particularly if such affirmation is not readily evident. The mind of a jerk, therefore, is preoccupied with finding support for his/her fragile self-image, and “happiness” may be merely temporary relief from anxiety about such confirmation. This search for affirmation won’t end unless the person learns to address the reasons for his/her fragile self-image—and usually becomes less egotistical in the process. Unfortunately, it takes tremendous effort and ability of self-reflection to get to this point.

Like all sensations, the feeling of happiness is due to biochemistry. Certain perceptions and emotions are associated with the release of hormones which illicit the sensations of joy and contentment. We know now that social interactions, even when using electronic media, can lead to dopamine release. Bodily contact and signs of affection may induce the release of oxytocin and serotonin, which is perceived as pleasing and relaxing. Altruistic actions may lead to higher endorphin levels, rewarding us for our good deeds. The commonality of these biochemical phenomena is that they are short-lived and are often sought in a perpetual manner to receive repeated satisfaction.

Happiness is a condition of freedom from stress and anxiety, which comes from recognizing that we don’t need external affirmation of our worth. Instead, we can relax and enjoy our life and all life. Contrary to the mentioned short-lived episodes of contentment, the state of happiness is lasting, providing for the release of “happy hormones” as long as we maintain our focus on our fortitude. Many impediments to enjoying life come from desire—and desire comes from wanting a state different from what we are in now—often to support our importance or standing in relation to others. As we all know, this desire can never be satisfied as long as there is a state we may desire more which is unattainable. The classic tale of the fisherman and his wife says it all. Finding happiness, therefore, is closely linked to generating peace in our mind about our situation in life. This doesn’t mean we must be complacent and can’t strive for things. Being mindful of who we are and what is most important in life helps us, however, to maintain a balance.

Copyright by Armin Zadeh

Source: Copyright by Armin Zadeh

Once we have found love for ourselves and acceptance of who we are, our mind will be less distracted by constantly searching for ways to boost our self-image. Then something wonderful happens: We open ourselves to the world, develop an appreciation for life, and feel empathy for others. The default mode of our mind is not egotism but love. Egotism, as a mechanism of self-preservation, takes over if we, physically or emotionally, feel cornered. The problem is that we easily recognize physical cornering, while we are often not aware of emotional threats—with potentially devastating consequences for our life experience.  

People who recognize their emotional challenges and work through to their resolution know what tremendous effort it takes—but that a different life awaits on the other end. Ask Howard Stern. Looking back, he acknowledges being a jerk in the beginning of his career. It took him years of psychoanalysis to understand and be able to express his empathy for others.

In the end, it is likely true that a jerk can’t really be happy until he learns how to love himself and others. Those of us who have internalized these principles earlier in life, by virtue of our upbringing or self-development, are indeed luckier—whether society rewards it or not.

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