The Five Thieves of Happiness: Conceit

In our first installment on the Five Thieves of Happiness, I introduced the five key thought patterns that prevent us from living a joyful life. These are destructive thought patterns that cause us to stand in the way of our own happiness and prevent us from leading a fulfilled life. They’re known as the Five Thieves of Happiness.

Dr. Izzo, who coined the term “Five Thieves of Happiness,” argues that to find true joy, we need to learn how to identify and “lockout” these thieves by rebuilding our thought patterns and living a more thoughtful, compassionate, and happier life.

As a quick reminder, the Five Thieves of Happiness (sometimes referred to as the 5 C’s) are control (which we covered in our last post), conceit, comparison, consumption, and comfort.

Are You Selfish or Selfless?

“For it is in giving that we receive” — Saint Francis of Assisi

When you think of ‘conceit,’ you likely jump right to its adjective form: conceited. In your head, you may be picturing someone who’s incredibly self-absorbed, vain, and has an exaggerated sense of self-importance. You likely think that description doesn’t apply to you (or maybe it does!). But within the context of the Five Thieves of Happiness, conceit is the act of centering your own desires and needs over the desires and needs of others. In the loosest sense of the term, it’s self-centeredness.

Being self-centered has a negative connotation, but it isn’t always a bad thing. The saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” exists for a reason—the same applies to the ever-popular airline mantra of “Put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.” 

We have to take care of ourselves to take care of others. However, if we constantly center our own needs instead of the needs of our friends, family, coworkers, or loved ones, we cost ourselves a lot of happiness.

The World Revolves Around You—And Everyone Else

Here’s an example I read recently that highlights how we’re all, at some point, guilty of thinking we’re the center of the universe. (Although I'm not a huge football fan, I can still appreciate this example):

Let’s say your favorite football team made it to the Superbowl. Unfortunately, they’re losing—but as a superstitious football fan, you think that wearing your lucky jersey will help them win the game. In your head, this one garment is directly responsible for deciding the outcome of the game.

But there’s just one problem: a few million people are watching the same game as you, and there’s a good chance that fans on the opposing team are also wearing their lucky jerseys, making the same prediction you are. We all think we have a unique ability to influence the outcome, but that’s not how the world works.

Happiness requires you to center yourself in a much larger story—a story in which you are one of many contributing characters.

Countering Conceit with Service

“We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give” — Winston Churchill

Science has proven that helping others makes us happier.

Consider these facts:

  • Helping others can promote physiological changes in the brain linked with happiness.
  • In-person volunteer activities, like volunteering at a local food bank, can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • People who regularly volunteer are known to have higher self-esteem and overall wellbeing.

In the Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness, he argues that we must learn to connect with others in a meaningful way to find happiness—serving others is a great way to accomplish that.

Here are some simple ways to incorporate more service into your life:

  • Find a cause that you’re passionate about and sign up as a volunteer. Online services include Volunteer Match or Points of Light. Other local options could be:
    • Animal shelters
    • Food banks
    • Homeless shelters
    • Public libraries
    • Disaster relief organizations
    • Parks & recreation centers
  • Check-in with the people in your life and see if they need help or support in any way. Aside from personal relationships, this works for your professional ones too. For example, as an extrovert, I found lockdown from covid to be very challenging. Early on, I started a practice called, ‘Wheel of LinkedIn’, where each week I went to my network connections, closed my eyes, and scrolled down (like spinning the Wheel of Fortune 😊) until I felt the moment to stop. I’d open my eyes, and whichever name I landed on, sent a quick personal note to reconnect. It was such a fun experience that I’ve carried it on for 18 months now. I have rekindled relationships, found ways to help others with their career, and expanded my network.  
  • If you can’t donate time, consider donating much-needed funds to local non-profits.
  • Be more cognizant of your environmental impact and identify ways to go green in your day-to-day activities. Even small things can make a difference while giving you a dopamine boost. A small example: I’ve collected reusable bags from my (pre-covid) travels and keep several in the trunk of my car to use when shopping.
  • Sign up as a mentor for high school and college students, entry-level employees, or aspiring entrepreneurs. Check with your local civic association, university alumni chapter, or try a free service like SCORE to find a mentee.  
  • If you own a company, consider making service a part of your mission and incorporate volunteer opportunities into your company culture. Encourage employees to join you.

In Dr. John Izzo’s book, The Five Thieves of Happiness, he defines happiness as “a deep sense of rightness about one’s life and a sense of inner contentment about oneself in the world.” What better way to achieve a deep sense of rightness than to do the right thing? In fact, as humans, Izzo argues that “Unlike any other species, we learned to cooperate with large numbers of strangers to accomplish common ends.” So why not put those unique abilities to work?

Some refer to the endorphin rush you get after a generous act as “Helper’s High.” When you give from the heart, you’ll increase your capacity for joy. Happiness can be elusive, but it might become easier to find by dedicating time to helping others.

Stay tuned for our next installment in the series on the Five Thieves of Happiness, where we’ll cover comparison.