by Laura A. Roser

Does narcissism exist? If you believe various psychological studies, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” and it’s increasing! But for many people narcissistic tendencies could be a misguided attempt to find more meaning.

Craving Connection in a “Disconnected” Age

The following is an excerpt from my book, Your Meaning Legacy, regarding my research about narcissism and entitlement:

Born in 1980, I’m right on the bleeding edge of being a millennial—in no man’s land—somewhere between Gen X and millennial. All the narcissistic labeling of millennials, however, makes me want to retreat to an earlier time, even if it means admitting I’m old. Those now in their twenties and early thirties have been labeled the “Me Me Me Generation,” characterized by wiser elders as being selfish and entitled. We get married later (if at all), have fewer kids, post a plethora of selfies, and do crazy things—like go backpacking around Europe for two years while working from a laptop—all in an attempt to satisfy our thirst for purpose or pleasure.

The data is sobering. According to the National Institutes of Health, the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for individuals in their twenties as for those in their mid-sixties or older. And how about the fact that 58 percent of college students scored higher in narcissism in 2009 than those did in 1982? There’s a bunch of other scary statistics, from more young adults living with their parents than ever before to 40 percent of millennials feeling they should be promoted in their jobs every two years, no matter their level of competency.

Whether I’m at a dinner party or a financial conference, this narcissistic trend inevitably comes up when I talk about passing on values and wisdom to the younger generation. Many shrug and say, “Young people are just too entitled.” Of course, I also run into people who have children or grandchildren who are loving, considerate, and grateful. And I’ve met some amazingly generous millennials. What I’ve noticed is that the difference between entitled and not entitled kids seems to be mostly about training.

If you ask most people—even of the Me Me Me Generation—if they want to help others, they’ll say, “Yes!” But often they don’t know how to go about it. Like any behavior, a focus on self is a habit and one that many employ simply because they don’t know any better or they believe it will make them happier. It’s counter intuitive that giving away your time, resources, and money to serve someone else could create more joy in your life, but that’s what happens.

In experiments conducted by Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues, participants who were given $5–$20 to spend were happier when they spent the money on others instead of on themselves. The study also found that people who spent a larger proportion of their income on others or contributing to a charity were happier than those who spent it on themselves.

The Darker Side of “Supposed” Narcissism

I remember listening to an interview with shame researcher Brené Brown in which she said she cringes whenever someone labels someone else a narcissist. According to her, these so-called narcissistic tendencies—such as posting selfies online—are an attempt for connection. As humans, we want to be seen and acknowledged. We want to be valued. To label someone “narcissistic” or “entitled” downplays their feelings and treats them as a joke. It’s not kind and it’s not recognizing their position.

Whether you have millions of dollars or are financially struggling, as a culture, we are conditioned to want to give our children a better life than what we had. We want to protect them; we want them to be successful. But unfortunately, the happiness trend for younger generations is moving in the wrong direction: A 2012 study by the American College Counseling Association reported a 16 percent increase in mental health visits since 2000. Also, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged twenty-five to thirty-five and the third leading cause of death among people aged fifteen to twenty-four.

Everyone must find their own path to purpose and fulfillment, but how do we facilitate that for our children when we are seemingly living in a culture of purposelessness? The real problem is not in purposelessness itself but in the avoidance of pain. For some reason, “happiness” has come to mean avoiding unpleasantness. But there are different seasons in life—highs and lows, mistakes followed by consequences. If we believe our lives are supposed to operate without hardship, we are in for a tough road when hardship inevitably befalls us.

In his book The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck writes, “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” Helping others through their hardships, opening our minds to how others live and cope, and learning that life comes with difficulty is something to immerse our kids in. Otherwise, they cannot cope with harsh realities they’ve been protected from.

Your ability to help the next generation connect with others on a deeper level helps them develop authentic love for themselves and a greater sense of meaning.

All my best,
Laura Roser
CEO & Founder of Paragon Road
Bestselling author of Your Meaning Legacy: How to Cultivate & Pass On Non-Financial Assets
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