Have you ever heard the phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”? The idea is pretty simple: If individual parts are put together in a certain way, something new comes out of the arrangement; something new emerges.
Country singer Hank Williams wrote a signature song titled, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The first line introduces a bird singing and asks, “Did you hear that lonesome whippoorwill?” The remarkable second line states, “He sounds too blue to fly.” What an image: Six words describe a bird so down in the dumps that he can’t even fly. Now that’s sadness!
Let’s take those six words in line two and mix them up: too, fly, sounds, he, blue, to. Not much emotion conveyed in that jumble, is there? But when the words are re-arranged in a different order, plus put in the context of line 1, something new emerges: A level of sadness that is almost incomprehensible. When the parts are arranged in a given way, something new emerges.
In psychology, the concept of emergence is generally used in the area of perception. But let’s see if we can use it more broadly to shed some light on personality functioning and coping with stress.
A lot of people are stressed out because they’re not happy. Their lives are filled with disappointments, anger, anxiety, and feelings of incompetence and low self-esteem. And so, they wail to anyone who will listen: “I need to be happy.” Now, here’s something very important: When you utter this phrase, thinking you can find happiness just by looking for it, you’re making it all about you. “I’m having a hard time!” “I deserve better.” “My needs come first.” “I need to be happy.”
We have two coping problems here: First, effective coping cannot be centered around your needs. Second, happiness is not something you can look for and find. You can’t circle a date on your calendar and write, “Today find happiness.” It’s not something laying on the ground that you can pick up. Rather, happiness is something that emerges from actions you perform.
Actions are the coping key, but those actions cannot be centered around you. Instead of putting yourself as the main ingredient in the coping recipe, reduce your part in the recipe. You can accomplish this by allowing your troublesome emotions and interpersonal conflicts to help you increase your sensitivity to others – your empathy toward them — who suffer from conflicts similar to yours. This sensitivity and empathy will encourage you to reach out to help them. The bonus? You will discover ample helpings of personal satisfaction to help you cope better with your own problems. In other words, happiness will emerge from your altruistic actions.
The true human beauty of empathy is that both the giver (you) and the taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy for your coping difficulties than empathic service to others. As you travel the road to finding personal satisfaction, you will discover that whatever your plight, you are not alone in your difficulties; you will realize, that the best way to have coping strength emerge from your actions is to make sure you leave no one behind.