We have all heard that our sense of self is the root of our problems. The ego is the enemy. Having a big ego is a bad thing, and transcending the ego is often regarded in spiritual teachings as the holy grail of happiness. I technically agree that the ego, or the sense of self, is the source of the most profound suffering humans experience and that eliminating or weakening it would remove much of that suffering. But I don’t think you should do it. Let me explain why.

Is the Self an Illusion?

The Buddhist belief called anattā, or nonself, states that the concept of the self is entirely an illusion and that the person you think you are today is a different entity from what you were ten years ago or even ten seconds ago. You are not a unified ego, but an ongoing and constantly evolving process - an aggregation of uncontrolled perceptions and cognitions. The idea at the very core of Buddhism is that the key to liberation from suffering is to transcend the delusion of self which perpetuates our insatiable craving.

The Buddha was far ahead of his time and asserted truths that would only be confirmed by neuroscience millennia later. It’s true that the self is an illusion, but what is often left out of the nonself discourse is that the concept of self is an illusion purely by virtue of being a concept. It is not unique in its illusory nature; it is no more illusory than the concept of a tree or a business or a house. Philosopher Derek Parfit spent the better part of a truly exhausting (and great) book breaking down the concept of the self, but he just as easily could have spent all that time deconstructing the concept of a house. In fact, ancient Buddhist teacher Nagasena actually uses the example of a house to demonstrate the illusory nature of the self:

“Just as the word ‘house’ is but a mode of expression for wood and other constituents of a house, surrounding space in a certain relation, but in the absolute sense there is no house… when we come to examine the parts one by one, we discover that in the absolute sense there is no tree; in exactly the same way the words ‘living entity’ and ‘Ego’ are but a mode of expression for the presence of the five attachment groups, but when we come to examine the elements of being one by one, we discover that in the absolute sense there is no living entity there to form a basis for such figments as ‘I am,’ or ‘I’; in other words, that in the absolute sense there is only name and form.” 

– Nagasena, Pali Canon

I concede that the concept of the self is unique in its momentary therapeutic value. Much of the pain we experience is caused not by events we wish to avoid, but by the identity we wish to have. The desires which cause us to suffer when we are hit with a painful insult are the desires to be a competent, lovable, and valued individual. By contemplating nonself, we can down-regulate all identity-based desires by reminding ourselves of the flaws with the entire self-construct when circumstances clash with these desires to be liked or respected.

There is evidence that reflecting less on our personal life narratives can mitigate suffering. A decrease in narrative-self thoughts has been found to decrease negative emotions. It does seem possible, at least theoretically, to get rid of your sense of self and live in a state of perpetual present through years of disciplined meditation. In fact, this goal could be achieved far more quickly with a frontal lobotomy. And sure enough, many forms of suffering would likely go along with it. But should we do it?

Why Your Happiness Depends on Your Ego

I take the rather bold stance that the ego (self-concept, identity, etc.) plays a critical role in human well-being. I happen to think that the illusion of self-identity, though it is responsible for despair, is also responsible for true happiness and flourishing.

Think about the greatest, happiest periods of your life. What do they have in common? A few particular years of my life stand out. At this risk of sounding narcissistic, I’ll tell you what they all have in common: I was in love with myself - in a sense that I believe is exceedingly healthy. I was thrilled to get to wake up each day to be myself. When I thought about “me,” that great illusion of the self, positive thoughts and emotions came to mind. The exact opposite is true of the worst periods of my life.

There have also been times when I had no strong sense of self. Particularly in the periods when I was meditating regularly, I had managed to weaken my identity, as these practices often encourage. You could say that I became less vain in a sense, and I found myself looking in the mirror less than ever, but I would not describe it as wholly positive. It didn’t make me happier. It made me more neutral.

Some will claim that they were most satisfied in their lives when they were in love, when they were working toward a great purpose and giving back, or when they were raising their child. But these sources of happiness do not oppose my claims - when you raise a child, for example, your identity shifts to include, even center around that child. Your goals and strivings focus more on your child and less on yourself, and your self-worth begins to center around your child’s development and how good of a parent that makes you. This is why my parents are frustrated that I didn’t put my name on the cover of my book. One of the most difficult parts of parent-child relationships is the conflicts of interest that result from two people having their identity centered around one individual’s life and decisions.

For the purpose of this argument, I will simplify happiness to a scale running from -1 to 1. We would characterize -1 as severe depression. For lack of an adequate modern word, we’ll call 1 “eudaemonia,” which is the ancient Greek word for deep well-being. I propose that the state ego transcenders strive for is 0. It is in fact a cessation of identity-related suffering, and there is no doubt it would feel like absolute bliss for anyone who arrived at it from below.

But this state would also represent the cessation of identity-related joy and flourishing. Psychological well-being is the product of living in alignment with your own values. The self-concept is the engine of well-being. By removing your ego, your sense of self, your identity, you take the batteries out of the happiness/unhappiness machine. By transcending your ego, if you could achieve such a feat, you would cut yourself off from the deep despair that results from failing to align with your own values. But you would also cut yourself from the eudaemonia that results from aligning with them.

The Struggle for Identity

A little-known and not-so-fun fact is that each increase in birth order is related to an 18% higher suicide risk. That means if you are a second-born, your odds of committing suicide are 18% higher than if you were a first-born. If you are a third-born, your odds of committing suicide are 18% higher than if you were a second-born… and so on.

What could explain this odd phenomenon? We can pretty much go ahead and rule out genetics since birth order seems to be a matter of genetic lottery. Maybe it has to do with first-borns receiving more parental care and attention. This is possible, but I think it’s only part of the story.

My suspicion is that people born earlier than their siblings have a kind of first-mover advantage when it comes to constructing a strong, positive identity. Self-worth begins with the process of trying to impress one’s parents, and first-borns get first dibs on the strengths and qualities they acquire. It would be very difficult for younger siblings to compete with their more developed and practiced older siblings, so they have to choose from a reduced pool of niches.

Each younger child has a lesser chance of succeeding at this because there are fewer niches that have not yet been taken. And this childhood identity struggle sets the stage for the rest of life(note that we’re only dealing with statistical averages here - being the youngest in your family does not seal your destiny of despair). This could explain why younger siblings tend to be funnier, and why comedians are thought to have lower mental health and an increased risk of depression. It seems humor may not be a common first choice for one’s identity. 

Depression and low self-esteem seem to go hand-in-hand, almost invariably, and a large portion of successful therapeutic interventions work by correcting distorted beliefs about the self. Depression may be best viewed as the product of failed identity - personal failure at whatever game it is a person is playing. People move down the happiness scale and toward depression when they perceive themselves to be worse at the things they value and their self-concept becomes more negative. The human condition, when viewed in this light, becomes a game of value alignment. And the good news is that you can rig the game in your favor by choosing which game you play (more on this shortly).

Case Study: Eckhart’s Ego

“The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly - you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you. This is the disease. You believe that you are your mind. This is the delusion. The instrument has taken you over.”

– Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

At the start of his bestselling spiritual manifesto, The Power of Now, new age guru Eckhart Tolle tells the story of his enlightenment. He had struggled with anxiety and suicidal depression his whole life, but he begins his enlightenment story in his late twenties. He woke up in the middle of the night so full of self-loathing and misery that he decided he could no longer live with himself. This phrase and the seemingly paradoxical nature of not being able to live with oneself launched him into a life-altering experience. He realized the illusory nature of the self in a deep, experiential way. He transcended his ego. He went from -1 to 0.

He then spent the next few years living a free-floating existence without a care in the world, sitting on park benches and listening to birds chirp. He had “no relationships, no job, no home, no socially defined identity.” In the process of writing his book, sharing his ideas, and becoming a guru, I imagine Eckhart went through yet another powerful, positive shift. He had, intentionally or not, constructed a new identity for himself. He was no longer the miserable and unremarkable man he had been before. He was enlightened. He was a guru. He was a bestselling author. His ideas were so valuable that people would travel across the world to hear him speak. He went from 0 to 1.

I should point out that I am quite fond of Tolle’s work. His ideas have positively impacted my life, and I highly recommend his books to others. But I don’t think it is likely that he lives without a sense of identity today. If my theory is true, it would mean that Tolle un-transcended his ego. He lost it, and then he found it again. I’m sure he experiences some cognitive dissonance as he praises freedom from selfhood while enjoying his own strong, positive sense of self. But it’s not enough to take him back to his park bench existence.

This type of enlightenment is for people who are so unhappy with themselves that having no self would be far better than living with their current self. If you are one of these people, it is possible that a journey of ego transcendence could be beneficial for you. You should probably also seek out therapy, and maybe even psychiatric drugs. But I want to assure you that nonself and misery are not your only two options. It is possible to construct and affirm that positive identity for which you long. So how do you do it?

How to Use Your Ego for Happiness

“Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.”

– James Clear, Atomic Habits

There are a few things that can stand in the way of a positive sense of self.

1. If you frequently experience identity-suffering, it is likely that you have false, negative thoughts or beliefs distorting your view of yourself, causing you to see yourself as a failure when you aren’t. You may even experience thought-spirals and ruminations that seem to attack you relentlessly throughout the day. 

If this describes your struggle, I would urge you to learn more about cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapeutic method was designed to identify and correct distorted beliefs and bring patients back to reality. A great first step would be to start keeping a log of your negative emotions and thoughts, along with the situations that trigger them. Once you have a running list and can start finding patterns, begin questioning the assumptions at the core of your thoughts, and look into some of the most common cognitive distortions and how to correct them. A good next step would be to read Feeling Good by David Burns. And then look into getting treatment from a licensed CBT practitioner.

2. Alternatively, you may have failed to construct a positive identity. You might lack clarity into your values, so you don’t know what is important to you or what kind of person you want to be. You also may have designed an identity that places too much emphasis on consequences.

This problem requires an introspective journey. I won’t explore this process deeply here, but it may benefit from meditation, psychedelics, philosophical study, travel and other routine disruption methods, and lots of long walks. You need to work to free yourself of cultural value dogmas and get in touch with what really matters to you. 

A healthy identity is centered around ongoing processes rather than results. Your identity is based on the activities you engage in, the time and energy you dedicate to them, and the gradual progress you make along the way. You should pride yourself on being a writer if you get up and write every day, can see improvement over time, and believe you are doing the best you are currently capable of. Are you aligning, or in the process of aligning with your values as a writer? For a properly structured identity, it should not matter whether you are selling millions of copies or not.

3. Lastly, you could be failing to affirm your identity. By this, I mean you aren’t living up to your own expectations. Most likely, your behaviors and lifestyle aren’t matching up with your values. You consider yourself a musician, but you let work keep you from playing regularly. You identify as a kind, altruistic person, but you haven’t engaged in any acts of kindness or charity recently. In this case, there are a few potential solutions. You can change your strategy or environment, you can return to option 2 and reconsider what matters to you, or you can put in the hard and sometimes painful work to grow and become the person that your identity demands.

All three of the potential sources of identity issues call for the use of what I call psychitecture. Whether you are altering your automatic thoughts, your map of your values, or your own character, you are redesigning yourself - changing your mind so that you can begin to align with your values as closely as possible. Your happiness depends on winning at whatever game you decide to play. If you find that you keep losing, consider changing the game, and you will give yourself the opportunity to stop fighting to survive and do what you are supposed to do when playing a game: have fun.