What’s so bad about being selfish?

November already! Crisp ocean breezes, intense fall colors, and bundled-up strolls on the boardwalk will all culminate in the happy ritual of Thanksgiving. The holiday’s association with feasting, family and Alka Seltzer implies, by necessity, a duty to provide and care for those around us. And though the spirit of giving and generosity can’t be denied, it is important not to neglect the sense of self that is so important to our psychological health.

Most of us are taught to not be ‘selfish.’ But it is important to distinguish between ‘bad’ selfishness and ‘good’ selfishness. ‘Good’ selfishness, far from wrong or unhealthy, means acting in your own rational self-interest. Contrary to the popular definition of the word, all healthy individuals are selfish. This is a good thing, so beware of the knee-jerk reaction to the word! Choosing to pursue the career of your choice is selfish. Choosing to have, or not to have children is selfish. Insisting on freedom and individual rights, rather than living under a dictatorship, is selfish. Indeed, even ordinary behaviors such as breathing, eating and avoiding an oncoming car when crossing the street are selfish acts. Without this healthy, rational selfishness, none of us would survive the day, much less a lifetime.

Selfishness does not mean self-destructive behavior. At first glance, we might think that a car thief, for example, is selfish. But is he? He has to run from the law constantly, something most car owners never have to do. Even if he escapes the law, he will never experience as much pleasure from possessing the car, as would an honest person.

Lying to your spouse, or any loved one, is not selfish. The psychological stress of trying to “live the lie” of an extramarital affair—or any major secret—is enormous. A properly selfish person understands that honesty is the best policy and, in the long run, the least painful.

I define ‘bad’ selfishness as self-sacrifice: Giving up a greater value for a lesser value. Consider the example of a battered wife. She stays with her abusive husband for reasons of “security” and “family stability.” Yet, in the process, she sacrifices her self-esteem and physical safety (greater values) to the irrational whims of her husband (lesser values). Is her selflessness and suffering a virtue? Of course not.

Consider the example of the hard-working student who allows a friend to copy her answers on an examination. She is sacrificing both her integrity and her efforts (greater values) to the laziness and low self-esteem of her “friend” (lesser values). Is her ‘selfless’ behavior helping anybody?

Consider the jealous individual who tries to make you feel guilty for your hard-earned success. “You are lucky to have done so well,” the envious person says. “Now you have a duty to share some of your success with others.” Certainly, a rationally selfish person enjoys the pleasure and satisfaction of sharing his success with those he genuinely cares about. As his family, friends, or children (greater values) benefit, so does he. But why should he make sacrifices, perhaps to the detriment of his loved ones, for individuals he does not know or care about (lesser values)?

Selfish individuals give to charity if and when they choose. Helping others who truly need it can be deeply pleasurable. A selfish person is not “stingy.” He values the use of his own judgment in making decisions about how to spend his money, and when to give it away.

Because the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ selfishness is often blurred, most of us assume that some selfishness is healthy, but “too much” selfishness will lead to loneliness and despair. But remember the distinction between the stress and resentment of self-sacrifice, and the contentment and satisfaction of acting toward your own rational self-interest (which will automatically benefit those you love and causes that are important to you). ‘Rational” means that one can logically prove that an action is in one’s self-interest, in the long run as well as the short run.

For instance, a man might think that the short-term pleasure of cheating on his wife is in his self-interest. But, if he considers the long-term, he loses her either way by lying to her. If he really loves her, he will feel terrible if he lies to her. If he no longer loves her, it is senseless to continue living with her and conducting an affair in secret. A selfish individual does not like to lie, because he sees that it does not bring him long-term happiness.

Don’t assume that we cannot be selfish (acting in our rational, long-term self-interest) and, at the same time, be kind to others. If a mother loves her son, it makes her happy to give up some of her money to buy him special things. It is not a sacrifice—it is, indeed, a supremely selfish act. Both mother and son are better for it.

Similarly, the owner of a popular restaurant is not dutifully “serving the public.” He provides good food and a nice atmosphere so that he can make a profit and beat the competition. If he consistently works toward that goal, both the owner and his diners benefit.

A physician does not provide quality treatment for altruistic reasons. She provides it because she is emotionally and financially rewarded for being competent and caring. Otherwise, she would, quite appropriately, lose her patients. Both patient and doctor benefit from this ‘good’ selfishness. I wouldn’t want to be operated on by a ‘selfless’ doctor!

In a rational society, where individuals are left free to pursue their happiness, selfishness is encouraged. In the process, everyone benefits. Accepting responsibility for determining what truly serves your long-term interest is a nice alternative to a life filled with duty, drudgery and disillusionment.

We are taught, from childhood, that we must be either self-sacrificing or thoughtlessly “selfish.” I maintain that this is a false alternative. As adults, with adult responsibilities, we can embrace the option of rational selfishness, which, if practiced consistently, is the means of living both a moral and psychologically healthy life.