Be Selfless, If Only For Selfish Reasons; Selfish, If Only for Selfless Reasons

From Further Secrets of Adulthood:

This is a very important Secret of Adulthood.

Be selfless, if only for selfish reasons: do good, feel good — it really works! One of the best ways to make ourselves happier is to make someone else happier. It’s a kind of gratification that never palls. Some people think that this good feeling detracts from the altruism of any virtuous act — but to my mind, the fact that we feel good when we do good for others is one of the best aspects of human nature. I feel happier when I see anyone doing something good — especially if it’s me!

Be selfish, if only for selfless reasons: when we give more to ourselves, we can ask more from ourselves. That’s why we need healthy treats. That’s why we need to work on the Strategy of Foundation.  When we take care of ourselves, we can forget about ourselves, and turn outward to think about other people and the problems of the world.  People who are happier are more altruistic: they give away more money, volunteer more time, and are more likely to lend a hand. One of the best ways to make someone else happier is to be happy ourselves.

Agree, disagree? Agree partly?

  • Penelope Schmitt

    One of those slogans I remember having a hard time swallowing and digesting when I was first in a 12 step group was: “keep the focus on yourself.” It seemed so WRONG.
    However, keeping that focus sets aside questions about whether one is being ‘selfish’ or ‘selfless’.
    First, my ‘self’ is the only appropriate field for me to work upon and change. Even a parent does better to work on being a better parent, than to try to turn their child into a ‘better’ child. As for others, we are really unable to accomplish anything with statement like “if he would just . . .” or “if only you would . . . ” Focusing on ourselves and our own behavior keeps attention on the one person we have a right and responsibility to command.
    In time, this self-focus gives you a nituib that your obsession with getting other people to live the way you think they should is not only a waste of effort but really greedy and selfish. When you start taking care of your health, your need for sleep, your basic responsibilities, and accepting the consequences of your own actions, maturity grows. You begin to understand that one of the gifts you need to give yourself is acquaintance with generosity of spirit towards others.
    Not saying that selfless giving should come last, but rather that TRULY selfless giving, unattached to selfish ideas of getting attention or acquiring merit or credit comes from a very strong self at the center of one’s own life.

  • Meg Clare

    I agree that the good feeling that you get from doing good for others, when we don’t do it, but humbly do something. The good feeling lets us know that it truly was a good thing and not just our ego going on a little trip. I can’t care for anyone to a higher degree than I love and care for myself. That is just a fact of human nature.

    • christine

      For me using the word “Selfish” immediately brings a measure of thinking ONLY of myself disregarding all others. Instead of using this word, I much prefer using “Self care” which to me means loving myself and also leaving room for loving others. I also am in a 12 step program and that’s the reason I belong to it. I have been selfish to get what I wanted, now I try to practice sell care so that I can give to others without any expectation of receiving anything in return from them and I get my gratification of feeling good, just by giving. I strongly believe that you can’t keep what you have if you don’t give it away.

      • gretchenrubin

        I know what you mean about the word “selfish,” but for the purposes of summarizing for an aphorism, “self care” doesn’t work as well!

  • Mike Sporer

    In my years on this earth, I’ve run across several kinds of people (to varying degrees of course). Those who are selfish and give nothing, those who give of themselves with the expectation of recognition, and those who give of themselves without self-aggrandizement. For those on the latter end of the scale, thank you for your example.

  • alexisgabriele

    too good… this feels like the simplistic yin and yang secret to everything.

  • Noel

    Definitely agree! Seeing the smile in people’s faces after helping them out produce a different high. It’s a feeling unlike any other but it all begins within ourselves. When you are in a good mood and you are happy, you want everyone to feel the same way. I remember one time when we were stuck in traffic and there was this lady who was carrying her 2 yr old child, asking for alms. We’ve just been to a restaurant back then and we had some takeout. I told my kids to just give the food to the lady and after they did, the child started munching on the food we gave. I asked him (the child) how the food was and he answered back with a thumbs up sign! That was an unbelievable moment, one I will never forget.

  • Hans

    Balance. Selfish, the art of taking care of yourself so you can help others. An unhealthy person cannot help others escape from misery. Selfless, the art of taking care of others such that it does not harm you. A person that is so selfless that they impose misery on others is not a help to those they try to help. Liz Murray in her book Breaking Night about being homeless as a child and later ending up at Harvard found that she could be a friend, but she could not change her friends–only they could do that. So it is balance that makes us healthy: do good to others, do good to yourself, allow others to do good for you, don’t do bad to others, don’t do bad to yourself, and don’t let others do bad to you. When these are in balance, you are healthy; when one or more are sufficiently out of balance, then you are really unhealthy, sick, or ill and the impact you have on others makes them sick as well.

    So this is all about habits. To achieve the six habits above is a lifetime of work that ends in happiness. Example: although I do not care to eat a Denny’s, I go there searching for single parents with disabled children. You cannot believe how difficult their lives are. So when I find one, I tell the server that their meal is on me. $25 is little or nothing to me and I know what it is to grow up poor. It is all about being an anti-narcissist at times by helping the least of these.

    By the way, if I recall correctly, Lent is all about giving up in a selfless way.

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  • Laura Bennett

    Well-said, Gretchen. I think the topic of ‘boundaries’ plays in here well. If no one had any ‘fences’ around their own individual ‘yards’ we wouldn’t have anything to offer anyone else –it would all be the same, boring, wide-open, enmeshed space. And that doesn’t fulfill anyone. It’s only when we ‘selfishly’ protect and cultivate our own that we have anything to offer to others.