In the pursuit of happiness

Heidi Wayment 225
Heidi Wayment teaches the way to fulfillment.

Northern Arizona University psychology professor Heidi Wayment has discovered the secret to happiness, and it’s not as complicated as one might think. The key to personal fulfillment and positive societal change – as Wayment and many researchers are documenting – lies in minimizing self-interest, and being compassionate to those around us.

Wayment explains that while this way of thinking can apply to anyone, students may especially benefit from adopting this philosophy during their transitional years to adulthood. She says that many first-year students, specifically, have a difficult time adjusting to university life because of the amount of time they spend focused on themselves and their needs.

“Because of Facebook, and because of our ties with distant people, we’re prevented from being here,” Wayment says. “College is supposed to be a culture shock – people aren’t experiencing that to its fullest because they have all of their friends who they can talk to, twenty times a day.” 

The “Quiet Ego”


The methods people use to find happiness is a subject Wayment has been researching for more than two decades. She gained attention for her work on compassion toward others when she held the “Quiet Ego” conference at the university in 2005. In 2008, she published a book, Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego, which dealt with the subject of finding happiness through giving up selfish behaviors.

And she does not mince words about what she identifies as the effects of selfishness on people.

“Looking out for one’s self, and engaging in narcissistic behaviors, is a source of lower self-esteem and lower self-worth,” Wayment says. “People really do feel better about themselves when they’re a part of something bigger.”

Wayment explains that while our society is geared toward self-interested behaviors, particular events – such as the September 11 terrorist attacks – can alter the way people perceive themselves in relation to others.

“In an event like September 11, instead of causing some of those personal defenses to come back in an even stronger way, people let down their guard,” Wayment says. “They were distressed, and in their distress, they became really connected to those around them. That feeling of connectedness was the silver lining in a really horrible thing. So, we started asking the question: are there people who can do that all the time? To take a tragedy and say, ‘you know, I am a part of a bigger something else?’”

Teaching contentment


The idea of interconnected behavior is the philosophy behind every class Wayment instructs at Northern Arizona University. She explains that her research eventually led her to believe that everyone has the capability to transcend self-interested behaviors and consider others.

“I think all people have the ability to feel this way,” Wayment says. “Sometimes, it gets lost in the chaos and demands of everyday life.”

She says this is the demonstration of a “quiet ego,” and it consists of living without judging.

“I’ve been doing some research on trying to measure this set of characteristics that I call ‘a quiet ego,’” Wayment says. “It really consists of the motivation to become a better person, meaning not better in terms of wealth, but in terms of personal growth. The ability to be in the present moment without judgment and without trying to filter the experience through your own expectations is called ‘mindfulness.’”

Wayment teaches a class, “Conservation Psychology: Psychology for a Sustainable Future,” that deals with this precise line of thought, but that is not where her positive-thinking campaign ends. She helps host Hot Topics Café meetings, where students and faculty can civilly discuss controversial subjects without fear of prejudice or judgment.

“There’s a real skill to being able to see where another person is coming from,” Wayment says. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t have your own opinion, or disagree with someone, but try to understand how a person comes to that opinion.”