The Fallacy of Sacrifice

Many people assume that mental health is either a matter of medicine or moral weakness. The medicine side assumes that medical treatment will eradicate mental illness, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. The moral side assumes that troubling emotions stem from weakness of character, and that’s all there is to it.

Neither side is correct. Troubling emotions originate from faulty reasoning, faulty thinking, and, most importantly, mistaken assumptions. A perfect example is the “Heaven’s Reward” fallacy, one of the most destructive — and faulty — ideas one can hold. In plain English, it refers to the false belief that doing good will somehow lead to personal gain. The majority of cognitive psychotherapists will tell you that doing good does not necessarily lead to personal gain and fulfillment. For example, being a martyr and sacrificing for others does not automatically lead to rewards.

Many mental health professionals, like their troubled patients, assume that “good” is defined as self-sacrifice. They might advise, “Don’t be a martyr,” but they also take for granted that morality consists of self-sacrifice. This insidious premise is never questioned, and that’s what gets unhappy people into trouble. It’s an error that no amount of medication can ever resolve.

The healthy approach is to assume two things: First, that the purpose of life is to be happy. Second, that one must take sensible steps to achieve some measure of happiness, and then keep taking those steps to maintain it. Many people spend their lives trying to determine what those steps are, and how they apply to them in specific ways.

If you go through life giving in to others and/or doing what you think they want you to do, there is certainly no reward at the end of that phony rainbow. The only reward is that the moment you betray yourself, you’ve taken a major chunk out of your capacity to be happy. And you have no business wondering, “Why am I so depressed?”

Some will say that concern for your own happiness is ‘selfish,’ and therefore bad. To those, I reply, “Is going to the doctor to treat a medical ailment selfish, and therefore bad? And conversely, is refusing to go to the doctor yourself, but rather making sure other people go to the doctor, a selfless and therefore moral thing to do?” The answer is not mysterious. It’s obvious.

The problem is that people think they’re supposed to give up happiness in order to be good. This sets morality and personal happiness at war with one another. The more you give up, the better you are. Many politicians, self-proclaimed religious ‘leaders’ and other moochers of body and spirit stand ready, any day and any time, to piously collect those sacrifices from you.

If aliens arrived from another planet and observed human beings, I suspect they’d make the following discovery: “These humans want to be happy. Everything they do centers on the quest for survival, and then the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. Yet for some unexplained reason, they subscribe to a belief that self-sacrifice — the lessening of happiness — is the central purpose of life. They idolize people who pretend to embody this ideal. What a strange bunch these humans are!”

Strange indeed. And even stranger, there’s no reason human beings have to be that way. In fact, it’s a remarkable tribute to the race that we have achieved so much happiness in the face of so much ethical and psychological opposition. We’ve spent most of our history under some form of political dictatorship or authoritarianism. Even the brightest free spot in history, the original American republic, is now suffering the same authoritarian fate.

It’s a fate of our own making. It’s a fate determined not by any external agent, but by the premises and resulting emotional states of billions of people. I see it almost every day in my therapy office, and I see it every time I turn on the news or read pretty much any news publication.

For all my sadness and anger over this condition of the human race that need not be so, it makes me optimistic that people can survive so much of the damage they do to themselves and still emerge at least occasionally triumphant.

Human beings, I maintain, are meant to be free and happy. But we must first convince ourselves that it is, indeed, a noble and worthy goal.