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Prometheus Speaks does not usually make a point of critiquing other authors.  However, a recent article in The Atlantic by the author Arthur Brooks bothered me very much, so much so that I felt the need to address some of the points made in it.  I also saw it as an opportunity to express myself on the topic of inter-human communication, in this case why and when it is appropriate to talk about ourselves and how we should be careful not to equate talking about ourselves with toxic narcissism.

Brooks’s main thesis is that talking about ourselves too much hurts our happiness and indicates deeper problems.  He begins by asserting that too many people are writing memoirs and that they should not be doing so, because their lives are actually quite boring.  On this point, I have always maintained that anyone’s life, no matter how mundane, can be interesting, if their story is told well – that is, with creativity and intelligence and in a compelling manner.  A story about someone going to the grocery store can be interesting if the author uses it to explore, for example, his feelings about the blight of his neighborhood as he makes his way to the store or reflections on consumerism.  In this regard, while it is not a memoire, Ulysses by James Joyce – considered one of the greatest works of literature in the English language – focuses mainly on mundane events that take place on just one day in the protagonist’s life.  But it tells the story in an incredibly inventive, complex, and creative manner.

Brooks then goes on to counsel us to talk less about ourselves generally, asserting that while talking about ourselves makes us feel good, it hurts our social lives and overall well-being.  As far as making us feel good, he points out that talking about ourselves stimulates the dopamine system, which is the brain’s reward system.  He fails to understand that just because the dopamine system kicks in when we engage in unhealthful behavior such as addictions, does not mean that everything we do that stimulates that system is bad.  Stimulating the dopamine system can be good, depending on what is triggering that system.  Sharing information and feelings with another person, whether about ourselves or others, builds a connection between both people referred to as attachment.  Attachment does indeed impact our brain chemistry to enhance our emotional state and reinforce that bond.  Brooks fails to recognize that dopamine’s reaction to attachment – including when the communication is about ourselves — is a good use of that system and should not be conflated with the dopamine rush we get, for example, from eating a sugar doughnut.

This habit of talking a lot about ourselves is referred to by Brooks as “conversational narcissism,” and he links it to mood disorders, particularly depression.  He correctly notes that depressed people spend more time thinking and talking about themselves.  Brooks asserts that this behavior is off-putting and that the complaining that often accompanies it drives people away.  But thinking and talking about themselves is exactly what depressed people should be doing.  The fact is that depressed people — many of whom may be in full blown crisis – should be narcissistic, as it is good that they are paying a lot of attention to themselves and their problems and that they are reaching out to others for support.  Brooks does acknowledge in passing that depressed people need “love and support,” but the bulk of his article seems intent on making us feel bad about talking about ourselves, when one of the problems compounding depression is that depressed people do not reach out to their social circle enough.  In this regard, Brooks is reinforcing an unfortunate current in our culture that says that we should not burden others with our problems or negative feelings and imposes guilt on those who do.

Brooks might respond to my critique by asserting that he is only referring to people who talk about themselves too much.  But what is too much and how is a troubled person to know when they have reached the threshold of too much?  Does a little bell go off alerting the speaker that they have entered the realm of too much?  Unfortunately, many anxious readers of Brooks’s article are likely to err on the side of saying too little.

Personally, I don’t think that someone who is put off by a troubled friend is a very good friend.  I do my best to let the people in my life know that they are never a burden if they are going through hard times and that I am always there for them, even if it is just to lend a sympathetic ear.  In fact, it would be upsetting to me if I learned that a troubled friend was suffering and did not feel comfortable reaching out to me.  Of course, we should not feel compelled to socialize with someone who complains incessantly without doing anything about their problems, such as going for professional help, or who never shows the slightest interest in their conversational partner.  But Brooks needs to show greater care so as not to make people with problems afraid of talking about themselves out of fear that they will be abandoned.