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The Upside of Selfishness

(Enlightened Self-Interest)

Does the pursuit of your own personal goals ever make you feel selfish or guilty?

Unless you’re a saint, I’m guessing your answer is yes.

On the other hand, some people no longer feel guilty because they feel they’ve spent their lives living for others and then they were gone, and now they have nothing to show for their selflessness.

In either case, to help you rethink this question, ask yourself the following:

Are people basically altruistic or basically selfish?

From my perspective, I believe the reason many people are conflicted is that they don’t understand that while people are basically selfish, they are also basically good. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. Not understanding this causes cognitive dissonance, a psychological term meaning the mental discomfort or psychological stress experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time.

To help you resolve this problem I think it’s important, first, to understand that being selfish is part of your intrinsic nature. No one does anything for nothing, or for no reason. Many people find this hard to accept. After all, who wants to be seen as selfish? But, stay with me, especially if you believe you don’t have a selfish bone in your body.  

After I support the premise that people are basically selfish, I will address your dissonance. But first, I want to concede that it’s generally agreed that altruism and unselfishness are positive traits. We’re especially impressed with people who help others who can never repay them, or give anonymously without expectation of receiving credit for their good deeds, their giving nature, or selfless acts. Such behavior is impressive for the very fact that it is not commonplace. While selfishness, on the other hand, is typically seen as a negative trait, I believe it sometimes gets an undeserved bad rap.

Some people are so adverse to being called selfish, they will, on behalf of others, compromise their financial security, their need for sleep, or even impair their personal health to avoid the label. In many cases this may prevent them from being truly helpful to anyone else. The message, take care of yourself first, so that you’re in a position to help others. On airplanes, in an emergency, passengers are instructed to put their oxygen masks on themselves first, even before their children.

With the preceding as a backdrop, I contend that even though a given behavior may appear to be totally unselfish, the key word being totally, there is, in my view, always some element of selfishness, meaning some personal motivation, at its core.

Before you disagree, ask yourself this: Would you do a favor for someone, expecting nothing in return, if being helpful didn’t make you feel good about yourself?

In the same vein, is giving to a charity or being a good Samaritan, even if at personal risk, an example of selfless behavior? What if such actions are motivated by a selfish desire to feel valuable or appreciated? What if it’s to be seen in the eyes of one’s significant others as an angel or saint? One more, what it one’s behavior is motivated by a desire to experience a heightened sense of meaning and purpose, for example, doctors without borders? Can such behaviors, given these personal, emotional benefits, be considered totally altruistic, selfless, or unselfish? I think not.

Psychological and spiritual rewards can also explain why people are willing to sacrifice their lives for their country, their children, or even a stranger. Could it be to die as a hero, to give their lives meaning, or maybe it’s to look good in the eyes of God? Consider the suicide bomber. What’s in for him? Only sometimes is it money for his family.

Even when selfless behavior is motivated out of a sense of duty, obligation, or guilt, it is still, to some degree, affected consciously or unconsciously by one’s own selfish desire to live according to one’s own principles, beliefs, and values, such as “do the right thing,” or do the thing that’s hard to do when confronted with an ethical dilemma. These values are your personal motivators, and the benefits you derive from living by them, beyond money, fame, or power, can be emotional, psychological, or spiritual. This includes your selfish desire to think well of yourself.  

A quick aside. Keep this thought in mind: if you believe your altruistic behavior is totally unselfish, meaning that your actions impart no personal benefit to you or your psyche, you may become resentful when your good nature is not sufficiently appreciated. If such is the case, you may not be as altruistic as you think you are, and your gift is only a loan until repaid. 

Do not misunderstand me. I’m not advocating selfishness. I’m simply saying that being selfish is part of our nature, it’s not a bad thing, that is, unless it leads to a disregard for the valid and healthy needs of others.

The real problem arises when our selfish needs conflict with the selfish needs of others. “Aye, there’s the rub.” How many times have you been told that you’re being selfish and you were inclined to say, “Yes I am and so are you. You want what you want at my expense?”

How do you handle a situation where your family wants more of your time, but your time devoted to your business is critical to providing for your family?

The solution to this dilemma is simple. It’s about compromise, tradeoffs, and happy mediums. It’s about finding balance and/or convincing them that they too will benefit from helping you get what you want. If you can’t make this point, maybe you should feel guilty. If you can convince them, you will both feel good about yourselves and your solutions. Note that not all negotiations are zero-sum transactions. 

My message is this. By focusing on you and your selfish desire to improve and take care of yourself, you will become a better role model and more capable of being of genuine service to others. This is sometimes referred to as enlightened self-interest. As the Bible says, “It’s more blessed to give than receive,” and better yet to be in a position to be able to give.

So, give of yourself…your time, energy, or money, and enjoy the emotional and personal rewards for doing good and needing little in return.

In closing, consider this mind bender: imagine what would happen if everyone was selfless and made everyone else’s business and self-interests their business? Hmm? 

It has been said that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bind up the wounds of the man beaten by thieves…because we receive ourselves pleasure from these acts.

Thomas Jefferson

A man is called selfish, not for pursuing his own good, but for neglecting his neighbors.

Richard Whately

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