Before you donate your time or money to the many charities and causes out there, first nurture your sense of self. To truly help others, you must feel good about you.
Most of us are taught to not be ‘selfish.’ But there’s a difference between ‘bad’ selfishness and ‘good’ selfishness. Good selfishness means acting in your own rational self-interest.
This is a good thing, so beware of the knee-jerk reaction to the word! All healthy individuals are selfish. For example, choosing to pursue a career is selfish. Choosing to have or not to have children is selfish. Insisting on freedom and individual rights is selfish. Indeed, even ordinary behaviors such as breathing, eating and avoiding an oncoming car are selfish acts.
Without this healthy self-interest, none of us would survive the day — much less a lifetime.
Good selfishness is not destructive. For example, it might seem that a car thief is selfish. But is he? He has to constantly run from the law and will never truly enjoy the car as an honest person would. How does he benefit from that? Similarly, lying to a loved one is not a self-interested act. The psychological stress of having to live the lie of an extramarital affair or any hurtful secret is enormous. A properly selfish person understands that honesty is the best, and the least painful, policy.
Bad selfishness is characterized by self-sacrifice, i.e., giving up a greater value for a lesser value. Consider the example of a battered wife. She stays with her husband for “security” and “family stability.” Yet, she sacrifices her self-esteem and physical safety (greater values) to the irrational whims of her abusive husband (lesser values). Is her ‘selflessness’ a virtue? Of course not. Consider the hard-working student who allows a friend to copy her answers on an examination. She sacrifices her integrity and her efforts (greater values) to the laziness and low self-esteem of her “friend” (lesser values). Has her ‘selflessness’ helped anybody?
Jealous individuals will try to make you feel guilty for your success. “You’re lucky to have done so well. Now you have a duty to share that success with ‘ me!” A rationally selfish person will enjoy sharing his success with those he cares about. As his family and friends (greater values) benefit, so does he. But why should he make sacrifices that envious strangers (lesser values) are all too happy to collect?
Rationally selfish individuals give to charity when they choose to. Helping others who truly need it can be deeply meaningful. A self-interested person is not stingy. She values her considered decisions about how, and when, to spend her money.
An action is rational if, in both the short- and the long-run, it serves your psychological health and well-being. For instance, a man might think that the short-term pleasure of cheating on his wife is in his self-interest. But he loses either way! If he really loves her, he will feel terrible. If he no longer loves her, he does himself (and her) a disservice by skulking around behind her back. A rational individual knows that lies don’t bring long-term satisfaction.
Acting in your self-interest and being kind to others are one and the same. A mother loves her son, so it makes her happy to buy him special things. It is, indeed, a supremely selfish act. And both mother and son are better for it. The owner of a popular restaurant is not submissively “serving the public.” He works to provide good food and a nice atmosphere so that he can make a profit and beat the competition. He and his customers benefit. A physician does not provide quality treatment for altruistic reasons. She provides it because she is emotionally and financially rewarded for being competent. Otherwise, she would quite appropriately lose her patients. Both parties benefit from this ‘good’ selfishness. I wouldn’t want to be operated on by a ‘selfless’ doctor!
The childhood ‘rule’ that we’re either self-sacrificing or thoughtlessly “selfish” is a false alternative. Before you surrender to guilt, jealousy (and those who wait to collect your sacrifices), maximize the benefit to your loved ones and the causes you care about by living a self-interested and psychologically healthy life.
Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest.