Know thyself

Psychologists who study well-being say that the most potent way to get well-being is to be an active agent in your life, living with genuine purpose and personal meaning. However, to be able to achieve this requires self-knowledge. The best way to know and understand your values, ideals, beliefs and biases, (both functional and dysfunctional) is to learn what makes yourself tick. In other words, ‘know thyself’.

One of Econation’s central ideas is that well-being does not come from affluence and a materialist mindset; in which case affluence is a harmful waste.

At best, affluence (over-consumption) provides short-term hedonic happiness at times. But the cost to overall well-being is high. The psychologist Tim Kasser, amongst others, has provided compelling evidence that materialists tend to be more insecure, have lower self-esteem, have worse relationships and are less authentic than people who aren’t materialistic. Kasser argues that people use material things to fill the gap between their idealised selves and their real selves, a gap he calls ‘discrepancy’.

The problem is that extrinsic, material things can’t fill an intrinsic discrepancy. Any perceived shortcomings, insecurities or psychological lacks a person has can only be resolved internally. Time and time again psychologists tell us that after our basic physical and security needs are met our further needs are psychological. No amount of wealth or consumption will be able to fill our highest psychological needs, because they can’t, and yet this is exactly what we are led to believe. One of the key factors that locks us into the make-and-consume lifestyle is that nearly everyone does it and all people have an innate motivation to conform. Also, our economic system, in an effort to produce and sell more than is needed, often preys on our insecurities and emotionally blackmails us to keep consuming more.

The question is, what actually does provide well-being if it’s not wealth and consumption? The answer lies in the fact that there are two key sources of subjective well-being. One is the hedonia we have mentioned already. This is about things that ‘feel good’. The other source of well-being is called eudaimonia which comes from the things in your life that ‘feel right’. Eudaimonia relates to the things that provide true meaning and purpose in our life. The modern economic machine is great at providing hedonia but not eudaimonia.

…if we don’t take charge of its direction, our life will be controlled by the outside to serve the purpose of some other agency. Biologically programmed instincts will use it to replicate the genetic material we carry; the culture will make sure that we use it to propagate its values and institutions; and other people will try to take as much of our energy as possible to further their own agenda.

– From ‘Finding Flow‘ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What does all this have to do with knowing thyself? Ultimately, eudaimonia is about being true to yourself, meaning that you are thinking and acting in ways that are right for you. If you don’t act in the right ways you are likely to have inner conflict because your innate need to ‘produce your self’ is being thwarted. It is almost impossible to be true to yourself without knowing yourself. Your intuition can go a long way to telling you what is right and what is wrong for you. However, the habits of our culture that we unconsciously adopt, like make-and-consume, can be very powerful to shift.

“Whether man explores the solar system is totally unimportant. But unless he learns to explore his own mind the human race cannot survive”.

Colin Wilson

“To know ourselves is the greatest achievement of our species,” the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “[a]nd to understand ourselves — what we are made of, what motives drive us, and what goals we dream of — involves, first of all, an understanding of our evolutionary past. Only on that foundation can we build a stable, meaningful future.”

On this blog we have written about some of our ‘evil demons’, often driven by primal urges which are vestiges from our evolutionary past. They include greed, envy, exploitation and tribalism. However, whilst we might not be naturally good, we are naturally social. It is peoples’ innate moral compass that maintains social cohesion and therefore well-being. It drives the better angels of our nature – things like generosity, care, respect and prudence. How do you know if you are greedy or generous, selfish or caring, reckless or cautious, and so on? How do you know what your authentic goals are and why you have them? How do you know what beliefs are holding you back and what are driving you forward? It will take a lot of self-work, but it is ultimately very rewarding work.

How do you get to know thyself?

I think most people, if they were asked what they were like, would not get it right. For more about this read this article at The Atlantic. People are often either defensive or assertive, either protecting or projecting their egos. However, we believe it is better to be wise and as Socrates said wisdom starts with self-knowledge.

There is an adage, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. To be able to manage yourself you need to measure yourself; this is obviously ‘measurement’ in a figurative sense. This is the start of self-work. One useful place to start is to do a personality test. There are many free online personality tests; you could search for them here. There are many other online tests you could do as well as personality, such as attention span, memory, anger, intelligence, creativity, competency, emotional intelligence, assertiveness, political spectrum, and so on. Do as many online tests as you can. If you don’t agree with the results, try another test and see if it is the same. Most of these tests are just rough snapshots and should not be taken as hard facts. However, they are valuable for what they are, namely a way to measure aspects of our selves and provide clues for improvement and direction.

Try to be honest with yourself, you don’t need to impress anyone with this. The overall purpose is to discover your authentic self.

Personal SWOT analysis

Individuals can do a sort of SWOT analysis of themselves, like businesses do. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The tests above will give you insights into your strengths and weaknesses, they relate to our internal thoughts and feelings. Opportunities relate to the actions and behaviours where we find our true purpose and areas of excellence. Threats are external, they could be physical like illness or psychological like peer pressure or the sort of emotional marketing messages we are bombarded with on a daily basis.

The expectations of family, friends, colleagues and employers is normal and society puts various demands on its members as well. However, problems can arise when these expectations and obligations are unfair, exploitative or otherwise conflict with our values and moral compass. Part of living authentically and pursuing wisdom is to know and manage these external stimuli.


Modern societies are very demanding. We can spread ourselves thin with the demands, distractions and minutiae of everyday life. To live essential and authentic lives we need to discover what is vital and most meaningful for each of us personally and use that as our motivation and purpose. It may be difficult but it will always be worth it.

“Don’t wish it was easier wish you were better. Don’t wish for less problems wish for more skills. Don’t wish for less challenge wish for more wisdom.”

— Jim Rohn

Further Reading

The three maxims inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi are:

Know thyself (Greek: Γνῶθι σεαυτόν, gnōthi seautón).

Nothing in excess (Greek: μηδὲν ἄγαν, mēdén ágan)

Surety brings ruin (Greek: Ἐγγύα πάρα δ, engýa pára d’atē)