Why I Try Not To Do Things For Others, But Instead, Do Them For Myself.

One thing I’ve learned from my happiness project is that whenever appropriate, I should “Do it for for myself.”

I have a bad habit of self-righteously telling myself that I’ve made various efforts “for my husband,” “for my family,” or whomever.

While this sounds generous, it leads to a bad result: often I expect other people to appreciate my efforts — or at least notice my efforts — and while sometimes it makes me feel virtuous, sometimes it makes me feel resentful.

Now, when appropriate, I remind myself, “I’m doing this for myself. This is what I want.” I want tidy kitchen cabinets. I want to decorate for Halloween. Which is true.

This sounds selfish, but in fact, being honest with myself makes me less demanding and resentful.

When I talk to people who seem to follow the same practice, it’s all I can do to refrain from giving little unsolicited happiness lectures.

For instance, one person told me she was compiling an enormous book of quotations and thoughts for her baby daughters. “That way, they can really know their mother.” The thing is — will they want to read through this tome? Will they treasure it, as she expects? Maybe, but maybe not. Now, making such a book is a wonderfully satisfying thing to do for yourself. I have several of these, and I love them. And maybe the daughters will pore over this compendium. But when this woman does it “for her daughters,” it seems inevitable that she’ll expect them to react in a certain way. “You’re so ungrateful, I put years putting this together for you, and you can’t sit down for an hour to read it?” etc. etc. If she does it for herself, it doesn’t matter whether they love it (which they very well may) or not (also possible).

Another person told me about a collection of something-or-other he was amassing for his children. He took great pride in describing how he traveled, how he searched, how he pulled the whole thing together, so he’d be able to bequeath this collection to them. But again, will his children want this collection? Will they appreciate it, will they have a place for it? A major part of the fun of collecting is the hunt and the grab, the adventures and the learning. Having someone hand you a ready-made collection isn’t the same. Was it possible that this father didn’t want to take responsibility for the time and expense he was spending on his collection, so he pretended to himself that it was a selfless exercise?

I was joking with some people about how I always make my bed, even in a hotel room on the day I’m checking out. A woman said, “Oh, I do that, too! I do it as a gift to the person who will clean my room. I think, I will do this for you, so you don’t have to work in a messy, unattractive hotel room.” And I thought to myself, Gosh, I do it because I like it that way.

Now, there’s a great pleasure in doing good for others — and it’s the right thing to do, of course. But, I have to confess, at least for me, that kind of thinking can lead all to easily to thoughts like, “All day long I think about other people. But no one ever thinks about me! No one gives me one word of appreciation.” (How I crave those gold stars!) But if I say, “I’m making the hotel bed because that’s the way I like it,” I don’t have the same potential for resentment.

Now, I’m not saying I shouldn’t do things for other people, but rather, that I should be honest with myself. If I’m truly doing something for someone else, that’s worth noting. And it’s important to do things for others. But if I’m really doing it to suit myself, I fare better when I admit it.

How about you? Do you ever find yourself making this justification for yourself?

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Do-to-do or do-to-get.  Your post resonates with a theme that has become central to my way of being these days.  

    Do-to-Get = I can do something because I think it is expected of me.  I can do something because the other person will then owe me a favour.  I can do something because I am paid to do it.  

    Do-to-Do = I can do something for the doing of it; no expectation, no attachment to outcome.

    It is entirely possible that one could live a life that outwardly looks compassionate, but inside is driven by malice and anger and hatred and sense of deserving and “I am better than”.  I know “religious” people that know how to look the part of righteous, good, moral citizens – but they are doing it because of a transactional “deal” – I’ll be good and you “owe” me a place in heaven.  I work because you pay me.  I treat the customer well because you pay me a bonus and it would be affected negatively if the customer rated me low on a survey.  My grandmother used religion this way. It was a separator, a cause of difference, a source of judgement.  

    Do-to-do or do-to-get.   These are the options.  Do the act because it is the right act, or do the act because of what I will probably get?  

    Do-to-get is the route to disappointment.  It is depending on others, on external factors for my happiness – factors that have no interest or stake in my being happy.

    It has taken a few years to clear up my internal stories to stop the “I am owed” themes…  and I still have work to do.

  • Jason

    “Social psychological research has indicated that extrinsic rewards can lead to over justification and a subsequent reduction in intrinsic motivation. In one study demonstrating this effect, children who expected to be (and were) rewarded with a ribbon and a gold star for drawing pictures spent less time playing with the drawing materials in subsequent observations than children who were assigned to an unexpected reward condition and to children who received no extrinsic reward Self-determination theory proposes that extrinsic motivation can be internalised by the individual if the task fits with their values and beliefs and therefore helps to fulfill their basic psychological needs.”

    If we try to chase carrots, the carrots become the ends and chasing the carrots becomes the means.  Once the carrots have been eaten or once the carrots are gone, we run the risk of becoming overly dependent on chasing carrots while pushing aside other things we enjoy merely because no one rewards us for pursuing them.   Seeking external rewards can become addictive like a drug leading us to pursue it at all costs.  

    On the flip side, we can’t totally do things because it’s all for our own good.  We have to consider other people’s feelings as well.  We can’t go through life just pleasing ourselves while ignoring others.  

  • LivewithFlair

    Oh!  I just love this post and the comment about do-to-do.  How cool!  Another variation on this theme is not to do things FOR people but WITH them.  That’s changed how we interact with my neighborhood. 

  • Megan Gordon

    This is great advice, especially for women. I recently started changing my thinking and it has made a huge difference in my attitude and I think I’m easier with my family because of it.

  • Jason

    I also remember a watching a RSA animation featuring a presentation about motivation given by Daniel Pink who mentions  study after study that people who performed tasks that require above rudimentary  cognitive skills for their own sake instead of for money tended to perform better than those who did things for money.  He also mentions people contributing to Wikipedia entries, playing an instrument and other activities we engage in without monetary compensation as evidence of people doing great things for no money because they just enjoy doing it.

    Here’s a video of the presentation:

  • Ann

    These are wise words, indeed.  Honesty is the operative thing here, and we are surely setting ourselves up for disappointment if we don’t reap the big reward we’re expecting.  

  • Ella

    My problem is accepting from others.  In the past when I accepted help or gifts from some people an expectation of reciprocation was so evident I developed a knee jerk reaction to never accept anything from anyone because I began to assume it probably came with strings. It is only recently that I have taught myself to graciously accept the kindness of others.  Now my thinking is if there are strings too bad, let them deal with it.  A friend of mine told me it was selfish to not allow her the joy of giving. Your example of people charging ahead and accumulating collections ‘for others’ also brings to mind a person in my life who stopped giving me gifts because she too would run out and buy me something that her daughters or she loved despite being in my home frequently and never once seeing anything that remotely resembled what she presented to me.  Her statements would be ,”You don’t have any of these so I decided you needed them/one.” After putting things out for several years that I hated and that did not suit my taste or my family’s I decided to put them away. I know this is unkind, but I hate clutter.  Now she says she doesn’t buy me anything because I’m impossible to shop for. One of my good friends whose taste is drastically different from mine told me he knew he had found wedding gift for my husband and I when he said to his wife,”Hon, I really,really hate it!”  It was perfect my husband and I adore it to this day.  

  • Danskta

    Gretchen – wonderfully written, painfully honest advice delivered thoughtfully and without “lecturing”. I always enjoy your blog (and book) not just for the “happiness boost” but also for the quality of your writing. PLEASE keep this going!
    Megan – loved your “fresh” voice and outlook on the same subject.  Yet another valuable way to approach the topic.

  • Elizabeth FInney

    Oh, how fascinating. And timely – I just spent the week deep-cleaning the house because my husband likes it to be clean. And because my mother-in-law is coming on Saturday… and because my children deserve to live in a clean house. But really, deep down, I did it because *I* wanted a clean house and it’s unfair to pout that my husband isn’t showering me with praise for the way the house looks.

  • LeeAnn Meadows

    When I read you book, I remember this concept.  Thank you for reminding me.  I often want recognition from my husband and end up disappointed.  When I focus on doing things for myself, I harbor less resentment.

  • Andy C.

    I see your point.  If you do things for others expecting their appreciation, yet never get it, you become resentful. This has happened to me and as affected my marriage greatly.  I have decided (after reading your book) to do things for myself.  It is hard, however, not to fall back into old thoughts and expect some appreciation at least once in a blue moon.  I will keep trying to tell myself  “you’re doing for yourself” — over and over and over again.

  • Debradylan

    Insightful and well written article!

  • Peninith1

    This is a really healthy view. Again, you have chosen a great (spooky) photo to illustrate your post. The ricocheting dishonesty it is possible to set going by pretending your reasons for doing things  . . . well there really is no end. The saboteur purveyor of baked goods to dieters who ‘fixed your favorite’ is here, the person punishing herself and the receiver through volunteer work she hates to do, the martyred spouse or parent or child. And others. One major thing I have learned about volunteer activities is that it is OK to do something I love (quilting) and give the results away. I don’t have to do activities I really do not like (fund raising for example) in order to feel that I have sacrificed myself to some ‘greater good.’ It’s ok to just spread the joy.

  • Jean

    This is a fantastic tip!  I am certainly guilty of expecting a favorable reaction to the many things I “do for my family”  but correctly reframing these as things I “do for myself” my well lead to more happiness for all us.

  • flossattrocbrocandrecup

    I discovered a maybe a year and a half ago that I was seething with resentment about keeping my house tidy for other people (family and visitors) and, as such, it was often pretty depressingly messy, because I felt so cross about the whole thing. When I realised that I wanted to keep it just as tidy as I liked, it got tidier almost instantly. So I’ve found this out for myself the hard way. It would be so easy if we knew this kind of thing as we grow up! But in other ways, it’s nice to be still growing up at the age of 42.

    • Elise

      Wow, I find this comment very insightful and I am going to spend some time letting it soak in to me…I think I do this!  I don’t think I realized that I let my house get extra messy because I only clean it for visitors….and I then do it SO resentfully.  I have a lot of very neat in-laws so I get resentful and stressed when I think that they are coming to visit because I try to clean my house to their standards.  From your comment I realize if I stopped thinking about being resentful I could use that wasted energy on actually cleaning my house to the level that I like it to be!  Hmmm.  As weird as it sounds I think I am going to have to work at this one!  Thanks for making this comment.

      • flossattrocbrocandrecup

        Thanks for replying! It does seem as though we have (or had) similar ‘blocks’ to keeping the house tidy – and I think your insight that letting go of resentment releases energy to tidy up ‘just for me’ is very true! It explains a lot of what I’ve observed over the last year or so…

  • Mara

    Thanks for reminding me of this concept.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with the FlyLady (Website, book, etc) method of housekeeping, but this is one of its tenets– the realization that one cleans the house for oneself, not the spouse and kids.  It really does help. 

  • Jeanne

    Overall, I agree with this.  But, there are some things worth doing for others even if it’s not exactly what you like or want.  An example – I’m my daughter’s girl scout troop leader.  I enjoy girl scouts, and I think it is a good experience for her – but there are things about being the leader that I don’t like and are just plain annoying.  But I do it because my daughter loves girl scouts and loves the troop meetings.  Her palpable joy when I pick her up from school and tell her it’s a girl scout day makes all the grief worth while.  But – if she ever stopped enjoying it, I wouldn’t try to make her feel guilty for not giving me the accolades.  Rather, I’d stop being the leader and try to find something else we could do together that would give her joy.

    • gretchenrubin

      Important point! YES! I am NOT saying we shouldn’t do things for others. NO! I’m saying that we shouldn’t do things for ourselves and pretend that we’re doing them for other people. The key, in my mind, is honesty about motivation. If you’re truly doing something for someone else, then, as you point out, you think about it in a different way.

      At least in my case, I was doing plenty to suit myself, while patting myself on the back for how noble I was being. Then I got annoyed when no one else cared about my efforts. Now that I’m more honest, I spend much less time thinking about other people’s reactions.


    • Brenda

      Oh wow – I thought I was the only GS Leader who thought most of it was a pain in the neck for me, although a good experience for my daughters!  You have made my day.

  • oilandgarlic

    Great post. I need to remember this the next time I complain about a clean house. I, too, look for praise and appreciation, as most people do. But sometimes it is really about what makes you yourself happiest.

  • I love this article.  Well written and thought provoking.  I can see these scenarios in many faucets of my life.  In fact it’s kind of a relief to acknowledge the happiness my efforts can bring me without justifying or attributing them. 

  • When you do things for yourself then you would finish it in a way you want and fell more haappiness….

  • I think you make an excellent point, Gretchen.  My ex used to do things “for me” that I didn’t even want him to do and then he would resent me that I didn’t appreciate them enough. 

    I think that if we admit that we are doing things for ourselves, we are happier and then if others benefit from our actions, it’s just all the better.  Yet, as you note, our expectations are different, and that can make a huge difference.

    • Elise

      Good comment Molly, we should all think about the flip side of this.  I have been in the same position of having the burden of trying to show enough appreciation…and have failed.  It can be quite stressful when a person wants us to go on and on with appreciative comments.

  • Elizabeth

    Interesting and timely. I am always trying to “improve others” by sending them articles, providing links to websites with info that will “help” them, offering my nutrition and exercise self-improvement tips, etc. I think we’d all be better off if I focused my improvement efforts on myself, for myself! LOL! Thanks!

    • bluegrasshome4

      are you my mother?   LOL

    • N Lewis

      I’m guilty of doing the same. I came to this relization when other people were doing it to me (ex. sending me articles of things they thought I would find helpful) and in reality I didn’t find it helpful. So i stopped doing it to other people and focused on myself.


  • Gregory Berg

    This is one of my favorite entries you’ve written, Gretchen! Great advice and one that would do each of us quite a bit of good to heed more often, as well as making things easier for us in the paths that we’re traveling! I love the SHIFT that comes when we realize that it IS all about us and our own expectations, likes, and wants vs. transferring those qualities to others in the name of “I did it for you.” Thank you for your perspective!

  • ACE

    Did you notice how often the topic of housecleaning keeps coming up in the comments?  Maybe housecleaning deserves its very own article, Gretchen.  Something like. . . Does a clean house boost your happiness?  What about spouses/partners who don’t agree? 

  • Kara Mullins

    Not only is this great advice, but it reminds me of the aha moment I had when I realized I can’t change or “fix” other people, only myself. You can end up resenting people that way too. Once you let go of that and only focus on yourself, it’s such a relief! Burden removed.

  • Gec

    Aye aye Gretchen. Straight in the bullseye. Happiness is selfish.

    Have a great week!

  • Catseye

    This is lesson that I just recently learned and I still struggle to STOP trying to people please.  Thanks for reminding me of this very important life rule.

  • pam

    I learned some years ago to change my language with regards to doing things.  For example, instead of saying I “have” to cook Thanksgiving dinner….I say, I “get” to cook Thanksgiving dinner.  This can be applied to any number of circumstances and I find it really helps my attitude.


    • N Lewis

      I love the way you put this. not saying I “have” to … and replacing it with I “get” to puts a positive spin on it. It totally changes the mindset.


  • Amy

    Stop making the bed in hotel rooms!!  When I was at University I worked in hospitality, and that (along with stacking plates on the table at a restaurant) isn’t always helpful.  With beds, you have to undo them all and remake them anyway, so it is actually extra work if you make it.  If the mess bugs you, then just pull the cover over everything and smooth it out…and with plates on the table…move them down to one end if you want to help, but it makes it really hard to carry them the way you are taught if they are already stacked!  
    Great post though 🙂  and so very true…expecting nothing in return is a great start to managing expectations and happiness.

  • marie

    I’m definitively like this. 

    One weekend I had to go check in on my sister’s cat and feed it.  While I was there, I cleaned out her fridge and did her dishes.  So then I felt “oh aren’t I a good sister”.  The thing is though, she didn’t really care that I had cleaned for her.  She obviously didn’t mind it the way it was otherwise she would have done it herself.  I’ve done things like that in the past for her, but then I get frustrated or angry because she never does anything like that for me.

  • Jeanette Chaney

    I have never thought of doing it for myself.  I like I will try it.  Usually the extra things I do makes people wonder why.  Now I can say I do these nice things for myself.  Thank you

  • Kathy

    This was a great post…and very appropriate for someone like me that has only learned recently to be honest about my motivations. I was raised with a lot of expectations, so turned around and created them in my own life.

    I also love a lot of the comments, particularly *do to do* or *do to get*….thanks!

  • C Arnold23

    The bed making story is funny. The woman who does it as a “gift” is actually making the maid’s job harder. If she really wanted to give the maid a gift, she would remove all of the sheets and pillow cases from the bed and put them in a pile on the floor along with the all the used towels and washcloths. Then, if she wanted, she could pull the spread up and arrange the pillows so the bed looks nice. 

    Making the bed because it’s what you like is something else entirely.

  • I have a similar website just like The Happiness Project. There were times when I crave for some recognition and when I didn’t get the respond that I wanted, I tend to feel unhappy. Then I realize….”Hey, I created this blog because I WANTED to…and I write a post because I WANTED to share…”. From now onward, I tend to stick to the main objective of the blog – which is to SHARE. Whether or not people recognize the effort does not matter. After I click the “Publish” button,  I tend to let go of any expectation of recognition. 

  • MemeGRL

    Interesting. I am finishing the (decade long) job of clearing out my parents’ possessions and the woman I was working with was telling me about one of her clients. She spent years writing notes about everything–who gave the cups as a gift, the occasion on which they bought the figurine…and her kids did not care and it broke her heart. I am trying to not do the same for my kids and am clearing things out because I am ready, and hoping that they would “know” my parents through “things” is clearly not a realistic idea. 

  • Carrie

    So very true. Further, I notice that when someone has done something “for me” I feel resentful rather than the obligated gratitude that they are expecting. And feeling that way makes me feel extra bad, which sours the gesture more. Thank you for writing about it.

  • This can be difficult for those who grew up with parents who didn’t have their emotional needs met.  There’s guilt associated with doing things for yourself, and many feel overwhelmed while “taking care of” everyone around them first and putting themselves last.  In reality, you’re in a better position to help others when you take care of yourself, and allow those who “can’t live without you” to go it alone from time to time.  I liken it to lifeguarding–you put the drowning person between you and the rocks if the situation arises–otherwise, you’ll both drown.

  • Ladymiss

    Doing something just because someone elese wants you ie. living to other peoples expetations is never healthy. Even if you get to be more ‘liked’ or ‘accepted’.  It’s not ok to be vey selfish ie self-centered either, I think.  Even if you get  to be ‘loved’ or ‘respected’. It’s ok to do things for others but not on your expense and vice versa. I guess finding a right balance between personal needs and other peoples needs would be a good thing.  That way you get to be happy without making anyone feel resentful. Everybody wins that way.  People know they’re  important to you when you think of them as well. The love you give is the only love you keep.

  • Deliberate Deborah

    I like the idea of video blog posts with additional links to older but related posts. Keep them coming. Perhaps it is because I am focusing on intentionality lately, or perhaps it is because I am finally focusing inward on myself, I am happier. I am listening. I am watching. I am paying attention to what I need and acknowledging while I may not have everything I THINK I WANT, I do have everything I KNOW I NEED. With this knowlege comes gratitude. When we focus inward, we make more intentional choices, we hear our own voices, we allow ourselves to “let go” of those relationships that don’t make us joyful.

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