Turn smugness into a positive virtue

By Philip Brewer on 8 May 2009 (Updated 11 May 2009) 6 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

Various times here in my posts I've admitted to an unfortunate tendency toward smugness. It's really a negative character trait, and one that I struggle against. There are ways, though, that it can be turned into a positive, at least partially.

I've been trying to figure out what to call the part of smugness that's not ugly and destructive, and I've about settled on glee. Because, really, that's what I feel when I do stuff that seems right and then things turn out well.

Gleeful is the way I feel when I ride my bike for transportation--getting exercise, spending no money, burning no fuel, making no excess contributions to greenhouse gasses, adding scarcely at all to roadway wear-and-tear or to road congestion. It's good. It's positive.

It turns into smugness, though, when I compare myself to others. When I bicycle past a gas station and feel superior to the lazy schlubs pumping expensive gas into their SUVs, that's not glee. That's smugness.

Where smugness gets ugly is when other people detect it. And it's not as easy to hide as you might think. When you're smug about something, people can tell. However bland you try to keep your tone or your expression, there's something about smug that just shines through.

Where smugness gets destructive is when you're wrong. If you've got a great plan and you're following it and things are working out great, that's all fine. But when you feel all smug about it, that's when you're particularly likely to fail to notice if things aren't working out so great after all. Just because you're feeling all superior doesn't mean that you are.

The keys to avoiding smugness lie in not feeling superior to others. It's fine to feel pleased with yourself when you set a course that you think will lead to good things, stick to your plan, and find yourself better off. It's when you look at other people who weren't as clever or diligent (or lucky) as you and imagine that you're better than them that you cross over into smugness. (And, really, there's no need: you can feel satisfied without feeling smugly self-satisfied.) A little humility goes a long way, as does a little compassion--and a little discretion.

So, the first and best choice is to not feel smug.  Stick with gleeful instead. It's really more fun.

Having said all that, I think you can find something positive in smugness: Glee only goes so far when it comes to motivation.

However much fun I have bicycling--and it is fun as well as being good for me and gentle on the planet--it does take a little extra effort and a little extra time. When I'm feeling lazy and rushed I'm all too likely to figure I might as well take the car. Feeling gleeful is great, but when I'm tired I'll just figure that I can feel gleeful about bicycling next time.

That's when smugness helps: I don't want to become one of the poor bastards I was feeling so smugly superior to just the day before, so I go ahead and bicycle anyway.

This can work for anything. Feeling smug about sticking to the budget can help you brown-bag your lunch, borrow books from the library, and get your evening's entertainment with a DVD instead of paying up for tickets to the theater. Feeling smug about serving your family healthy food can help you not give in to the allure of microwave meals. Always paying your credit card bill in full is just good sense--but maybe feeling a bit smug about it can help you hold back from charging something you can't afford (and if it doesn't, maybe it can push you to tighten your belt enough to pay the card off anyway).

Basically, smugness is a win to the extent that it helps you stick to the things that you're doing right. Of course there are other (better) ways to do that--ways that aren't so ugly and that don't set you up to fool yourself into thinking things are going well when they aren't. But, if a little smugness helps you get the job done (and if you can manage to keep it mostly hidden from other people), I think it's kind of okay.

I hope so, anyway.

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Andrea Karim's picture

I've been trying for a few months to write an article on this topic, and I keep failing. Mine was using the concept of pride - how it pride in yourself and your stuff can actually be a key to frugality. I always think of these photos I see of old Parisian men who go to the same cafe every morning wearing the same hat and jacket that they have doubtlessly had for 30+ years - their pride in their belongings and their carriage is an asset because it makes them stand out, gives them a certain sense of identity (if not to themselves, then at least to others - "It's that one old guy, who wears the green fedora; you know who I'm talking about!"), and gives them no reason to buy a new hat every year.

Personal pride (occasionally bordering on egotism) is also an asset if wielded correctly - if you believe that you are awesome, you can present yourself well to others, who will believe in you by virtue of your own confidence. Being slightly egotistical means that you generally won't take much guff, either, which can keep you from forming unhealthy relationships with people who treat you badly.

So, yeah, right on. You can harness these emotions to your benefit for sure!

Guest's picture

How about viewing what you do as how it affects you and not try to compare yourself to others?

Everyone has a reason, or a lack of one, for their lifestyle. Once you decide to compare yourself to them, it leads to disaster. If they are not riding a bike, you feel superior. If you are not riding a bike, you feel inferior. Neither promotes anything positive.

As you cannot possibly know what someone else's life is all about, it's better to just live your own without comparisons.

lghbob's picture
lghbob

It only hurts for a little while when you look in the mirror.
Thanks Phil, for a "so wise" blog. Am still learnin' and you're helpin'...
As you infer, "Pride goeth before a .... " ooops!

my opinion only

Guest's picture
tfan

I definitely tend to be smug about certain aspects of the frugal lifestyle. Mine is buying used cars, I tend to feel superior to anyone who buys a new car on credit and I try to watch it. I never thought of using the smugness to avoid lapses in frugality. Too funny!

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Paula

The real issue with smug is not whether or not you let other people see it, but whether your complacency keeps you from being open and flexible to the possibility that the ideas and choices of others who disagree with you might also be valid, or at least worth considering. This limits you and disrespects others.

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Brian

Thanks for this post, Phil. This entry reminds me of a proverb that has had a big impact on my life that I'd like to share:

"Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear Jehovah and shun evil.
This will bring life to your body
and nourishment to your bones."
(Proverbs 3:7,8)

When we feel "smug" (as you describe it above), we're being what the author here calls "wise in your own eyes." What is observed in this proverb (and what my life experience confirms) is that this attitude is indeed very dangerous. You mention the relational damage it causes above. True - but I think there's more. I'd suggest that a great deal of the emotional discomfort and frustration we feel in our lives (internally, often not shared with others) is caused by being frustrated over "how stupid" some other person in our life is. It causes rot in our inner selves. Humility (the opposite of being wise in our own eyes), on the other hand, can bring healing to many situations.

As an example, I've heard many people share with me that they grew significantly in their respect for their parents when they themselves had children. Before facing parenting themselves, they felt incredulous about the many mistakes their parents made. Certainly they would never make those mistakes! They'd never parent THAT way. However, when parenthood came upon them, parenting suddenly wasn't so easy. They themselves made mistakes and realized that some of the decisions made by their parents were good decisions after all. A transition happened - they were no longer "wise in their own eyes" - no longer smug. As a result, a few "healing" events happened:

1) A level of relational healing between the child and his parents occurs as the child no longer feels smug toward his parents, and

2) The child has some emotional/psychological healing as unneeded, internal frustration and contempt over how they were parented is removed.

This applies to many other situations. And Phil, though you humbly admit to it as a flaw of your own, I'd say that it is a fundamental problem with every person. So, here's my point and how I've applied this to my life. If I'm feeling almost any negative emotion in my life with regard to another person, I investigate to see if being wise in my own eyes is the root of it. Am I better than that other person? That person who hurt my feelings, for instance - maybe I'd never do what he did, but did he have parents who loved him and nurtured him as I have? Has he had the supportive friends I do?

Now, addressing your main point above: what about turning pride into a positive virtue? My two cents: you can't. Sure, my pride may keep me from doing certain behaviors that would be negative and foolish because I wouldn't want to stoop to the level of "stupid" people. However, this fundamentally does NOT have the power to improve my life. Other weaknesses and foolish behaviors will crop up elsewhere that my pride will cause me to turn a blind eye to. So, in my opinion, pride is not "redeemable." Instead, I would suggest the opposite. Embracing the fact that you are weak and make mistakes all the time (just like everyone else) will free you from the hamster wheel of trying to prove the opposite, which will in turn allow for better decisions and healthier relationships.

And, I should add, the verse also points out that there is more to this than our relationships with people. Being wise in our own eyes will delude us into a sense that we don't need God and his help - and don't owe him thanks for redeeming us from our past mistakes. This, of course, is preposterous. But so is being wise in our own eyes, considering any honest reflection on our lives.