At first, I didn’t know how it happened. How a dorky kid with no fashion sense was able to ditch the ugly sweater and wear a shirt and a tie on major events – sometimes even for breakfast. Was I suddenly obsessed by a fashion spirit or the covers of the modern magazines subconsciously recorded in my memory when I was walking past them on the street? It turns out, it wasn’t any of those things. I simply managed to settle in a glamorous looking crew of folks who shopped for new clothes as often as they checked their Instagram stories. Eventually, their fashion taste and erratic spending habits were quickly adopted by me.
Imagine a blank slate. That’s how the brain of a newborn looks like. Some scientists argue that there are certain traits embedded in our genes influencing our behavior, others claim that such nonsense does not exist.
What both groups agree with is the following: We’re all heavily influenced by the surrounding people.
It’s actually our biggest advantage over all other living organisms. Our development is based on imitation. Our ability to observe others, evaluate, and copy their moves is a vital skill that helps us survive and advance.
Yet, this same copying mechanism is also the reason we’re feeling worthless in the age of abundance. Our tendency to imitate what others are doing – and thinking – is the reason we’re carelessly spending our hard earn cash. Therefore, the more we obey the norms of the social circle we’re in, the more we become incapable of escaping the never-ending depths of the online world. A world full of comparison and erratic behavior.
The mere existence of the Other, as we’ll observe below, is both a blessing and a curse.
Why Other People Are Both Good and Bad For Us?
Let’s start with the good things.
You emerge from your mother’s womb. You cry. You crawl. You get up. You start to run. Eventually, at some point, you start to talk. Respectfully, if you’re born in Germany, you’ll call you dad “vader”. If you’re residing in the US, you’ll call him “father”. If you happen to appear in France, you’ll use the word “père”.
Same meaning, different words.
Obviously, you get why we use different words for the word father – because we’re exposed to different languages. If your parents are speaking English, the first language you’ll learn will be, unsurprisingly, English.
This is simple. We get that.
But what we often fail to realize is that we also adopt everything else our parents do. Every little act. Every little glimpse of emotion. We accumulate everything the surrounding people do, filter the stuff that are not relevant, and create a set of beliefs for ourselves that we’ll eventually use for (sometimes) the rest of our lives.
But it’s not only our parents. It’s everyone around us.
The horde of people you expose yourself to is calibrating your persona and shaping it based on what you observe.
The gains here are clear: thanks to our ability to mimic the behavior of others we’re able to learn new skills, tactics, tricks, set of instructions that are essentially helping us live another day.
What about the downsides?
There are plenty.
But before we talk about how corrupting the influence of others is, we first need to explain the mimetic theory.
How The Mimetic Theory is Influencing our Lives?
René Girard, a French historian and polymath, is the father of this theory – the mimetic theory. The goal of this concept is to explain our human behavior and from where our desires originate.
According to his views, our desires are a direct consequence of the desires of the surrounding people. Both people who we regularly see, in person, and such we highly admire.
As we concluded above, our behavior is based on imitation. But we’re not only imitating the moves and the actions of others. We also adopt the motives, the aspirations, the dreams of other people.
You might think that you want to go on an exotic vacation because you think that you are a free spirit and because you want to take a break from the world. In reality, though, according to the mimetic theory, you’re simply imitating what everyone else is doing.
Probably a celebrity you follow online is regularly posting pictures of her drinking cocktails on the beach. If that’s so, this behavior transports in your brain and you suddenly want to do the same thing.
This model of desire takes a triangular shape.
And it kind of looks like this:
On the top, there is an ideal we strive towards. René Girard calls them mediators. On the right, are our actions, the things we want to obtain, that are always somehow related to this goal – the top. On the left is where we are currently.
Or to put it differently, our goals, ambitions, and longings are never truly our own. They are a mere reflection of what we see in the world around us and who we want to imitate.
Actually, if we dig even deeper into the mimetic theory, we can see that we never really know what we actually want. We always adopt the desires of others:
Human desire is not based on the spontaneity of the subject’s desire, but rather the desires that surround the subject. He argues that humans do not themselves know what to desire; as a result, they imitate the desires of others.” Wolfgang Palaver from René Girard’s Mimetic Theory
“This is not so bad,” you say. “What’s wrong with going to a distant island and taking a break? What’s wrong with wanting what others want?”
Not that traveling 10,000 miles and spending 10,000 USD is necessarily a bad thing to do.
But the point is different.
If you don’t take a step back to identify your own desires, the things you want to do, without considering what others want from you, you’ll always feel miserable. You’ll simply respond to what everyone else is doing and never find your genuine, true self – as banal as it might sound.
A person who is always imitating someone else is unable to trust his own judgment. That’s why, he desires only objects desired by others. And also, he always follows and never leads.
The Bad Influence Of The Other
Amongst many, a common “perk” that comes from imitating others is your longing to earn their approval.
As we observed, we strive to reach an ideal that is shaped by taking into account what everyone around us is wanting. But we don’t do it only because this will move us closer to a potentially god-like existence. We also do it because we want other people to approve of us.
This tear us from the inside.
Part of us wants to express our true nature while the other part wants to win the approval of others.
This forms the following inner conflict:
“To be myself or to be what others will accept me to be?”
If you focus on being your genuine, true self, without considering others and caring about their opinion – which is still influenced by other people in your life in some way – you will fail to gain their recognition. After all, your actions will be different from what is “accepted” as right in the group.
For example, if you’re mostly hanging around people who smoke and visit nightclubs, your reluctance to smoke and say yes to heavy drinking during the night will be badly perceived. After all, since everyone is doing it, and you’re not, you can’t expect their approval of you. Actually, your disobedience will cause them to question their own actions – something nobody wants. “Why don’t you go out with us? What do you think you are, better than us or what?”
Eventually, you’ll be left out of the group or you won’t enjoy a lot of attention from them.
The second scenario, if you decide to go along with the group and focus on “being someone who they will adore” – which is kind of sad if you decide to go in that direction – is still not going to be that easy. At least, if you have any will left.
For example, if you’re a bookworm, an introvert, an anime fanatic, and you start partying only because you want others to approve of you, you’ll be torn between your true self (the person you want to be) and the socially accepted self (the person you strive to become because others will like more).
Striving towards the socially accepted self, in the book René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, is called “bad faith”.
Your efforts to appear as this cool kid, which you’re not, at least still not, will put you out of your skin and make you look like an amateur, an imposture at first. When observed under a loop, your actions won’t look natural. After all, you’re pretending to be someone you’re not.1
You’re simply following a plan, a project, to be this cool kid. Therefore, you’re being someone you’re actually not. If you give yourself enough time, you’ll eventually become good at doing the things everyone else is doing. And eventually, the circles will collide. During the transition period, though, you’ll be a stranger to yourself.
Our Consumption and our Media Habits are Greatly Influencing our Behavior
So far, we’ve looked at how others shape our behavior and saw what we do to fit in a group – we’re essentially betraying ourselves.
But our desires are not formed only by our offline habits.
The mimetic theory emerged when social media and the current modern media outlets were still not that influential.
Nowadays, what we become is also greatly influenced by what we consume online.
If you stream shows and watch how others play video games for major parts of your day, don’t get surprised if you start to regularly check for new gaming equipment.
Everything, absolutely everything, shapes our behavior and our desires.
The more gaming shows you consume, the more gaming things you’ll do.
You’ll get the latest console. Replace your old chair with a futuristic armchair that looks similar to the seat in a formula 1 car. Cover your room with posters. Subscribe to all the trendy gaming channels. Even learn the legendary acronyms invented by players and use them in your every life.
Yet again, even if you obtain all essential items for gamers, make your desk YouTube-worthy, there will be always something missing.
Why Do We Feel Worthless In The Age of Abundance?
Let’s return to the main question: Why do we feel worthless in the age of abundace.
Nowadays, you don’t need much to feel like a superstar. Nice clothes don’t cost much. Plane tickets and price resorts are all-time low. Smartphones and “trendy” tech gizmos that swear to make you significantly happier are just a click away. And lastly, the internet, which is basically giving us everything in terms of media consumption and entertainment, is almost free.
Somehow, however, we still feel incomplete. Still feel like we’re not good enough.
Why is that?
Again, the answer lies in our tendency to copy the behavior of others.
The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, perfectly outlines how, despite the abundance, having access to everything is not enough to keep us satisfied.
Once his basic needs are satisfied…, man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plentitude of being.” Jean-Paul Sartre
To put things into a modern perspective, let’s consider the following scenario:
You’re living with your wife in a rental. You both have relatively good jobs. You go out every other weekend. And go on vacation twice a year. You’re not rich, but you’re surely not poor.
All of your essential needs are cover yet, somehow, your inner contentment is always fleeting.
You’re not really satisfied. There is always something missing, at least that’s how you feel. The moment you open your social media account is the moment you feel ashamed of yourself. You see what others have and your mind immediately points out how little you, yourself, possess.
But it doesn’t end there…
You translate the glamour life of others as a defined path to happiness and success. What’s more, you look at others as a guiding start. You “follow” them so you can copy their possession, what they are wanting, and what they’re doing to move closer to what’s, apparently, the ultimate form of existence.
And you do it without hesitation. After all, since this other person is capable of “having it all” – the evidence is present in their feed – then, “I should do and obtain what he has.”
It doesn’t take long to realize that the above strategy is not working. Or at least, not going to work unless you continuously indulge in fancy vacations and costly items.
Not only because the new possessions don’t move you closer to happiness. But also because you pretend to be someone you’re not.
The more people you follow, the more information you consume online, the more of what you don’t have you’ll see. Therefore, you’ll do more things, acquire more things, intending to become happier, that don’t directly match your persona.
All of this, will move you to a place, make you do things, you don’t really like. Or even worse, make you do things only to please others. To make them like you.
Or as Jean-Paul Sartre further elaborates:
My original fall is the existence of the Other. Shame is the feeling of an original fall, not because of the fact that I may have committed this or that particular fault but simply that I have ‘fallen’ into the world in the midst of things and that I need the mediation of the Other in order to be what I am.” Jean-Paul Sartre
That’s why in the beginning I point out that the Other is both a blessing and a curse.
We learn from other people, and we grow thanks to our ability to collaborate. But if we don’t add some sort of barrier, if we create our own interests to pursue, we’ll eventually make pleasing others our main goal in life. Which will basically prevent us from expressing our own uniqueness.
Sadly, these days, there’s a lot of outside pressure that drives compulsive social media checking, encourages uncalculated spending, and prompts us to pursue a life that’s not directly matching the desired lifestyle we actually want for ourselves.
What can be done?
How Can You Move Closer to Happiness and Feel Worthy?
Since locking yourself in an unelectrified cabin far away to avoid the outside pressure sounds too extreme and it won’t work for most people, I’ve prepared the following list of short maneuvers that can potentially make you feel a lot better about yourself in our chaotic world:
- Imitate only the good behavior: Sift through the online noise. Find people who actually do good stuff, don’t only pretend to do so. Because, as mentioned, human beings are creatures of mimicry. You have to be ruthless about who you follow online and what you let inside your inbox. The same strategy applies, or at least should apply, to your formal offline friendships. Imitate the noble, the courageous, the worthy. Everything shameful or vicious, run away from. Still, even if you form a noble circle of friends, don’t lose yourself in the acts of others. You should always prioritize your own desires.
- Add constraints: If you do the above, it won’t take long to feel alone. After all, everyone else you see is trying to find the easy way. People pursue the “easy” path towards happiness by accumulating debt and possessions. If you constantly expose yourself to the vanity circling the online space you’ll surely adopt this vicious behavior. The solution to escape this madness is twofold: 1) Join a group of people who “profess” ideals close to what you find worthy; 2) Try to ditch everyone else that doesn’t bring any real value in your life. A good starting point, if you decide to improve your online consumption, are the following resources: Internet Competence online course, Make Time by Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky, Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
- Find a problem worth solving: The core idea of any business is to solve a problem. Car companies don’t simply build cars, they solve transportation problems. Writers don’t simply write books, they write lengthy texts to solve a specific problem usually outlined in the premise of the book. Elon Musk’s main motive is not to create a futuristic car, he wants to offer a solution to the rising levels of pollution (amongst other things). The problems these companies defined are helping them move forward and make decisions. You can apply a similar strategy if still don’t know what you want for yourself. To figure out what you really want to do, ask yourself: What kind of problem do you want to solve in your life? It doesn’t have to be big. It just has to matter to you.
- Create your own rules and follow them: Regardless of your religious views, even if you don’t believe in entities above the clouds, you must admit that The Ten Commandments are worthy principles to follow in life. Sadly, we often forget them. Not because they aren’t good, but because they are not created by us. For example, I have several rules that I follow regardless of what’s happening. Some of them might seem insignificant, others are probably obvious. Still, they are my rules and I obey them. Here is part of the list: Teach my son something new every day; Kiss wife; Write daily; Exercise daily; Don’t eat sugar after 6 PM; Don’t drink; Always consider the perspective of others; Don’t waste other people’s time, but also don’t let others waste your time. You can create your own list of principles. They can serve you as navigation and help you get back on track when you lose direction.
The whole point here is to focus on your own desires and mitigate the (bad) influence coming from the outside world.
Find a noble mediator that can help you handle the daily obstacles, but never remove your own desires from the equation. Otherwise, you might end in a bad-faith-like situation.
Some Closing Thoughts
I believe the paradox is clear.
We need other people to survive in the world. We need their feedback to feel valued and worthy. But at the same time, focusing too much on what others find valuable in us and letting them guide our actions is distancing us further away from our true selves.
Balance is not easily achieved.
If you start to focus on your own things, your own projects, and you don’t pay much attention to what everyone else is doing, you’ll eventually feel lonely and even lost. People will kick you out of the group and call you rude and emotionless.
Yet, that’s the price you need to pay to move closer to the person you really want to be. That’s why great artists and writers were often misunderstood and were not appreciated in their time.2
- The person who coined the phrase “bad faith” is Jean-Paul Sartre. This video describes the concept quite well.
- The following list includes talented people who were only recognized after their deaths. Think about how they felt for a moment. Their art is highly appreciated today but people mocked them during their alive time. Sometimes it takes time for people to get your viewpoint.