A Little Happier: Why I’ve Decided to “Do It for Myself”—and Why That’s Not Selfish

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

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

While this sounded generous, it led to an unfortunate result. Often I expected other people to appreciate my efforts, or at least notice my efforts, and while sometimes it made me feel virtuous, sometimes it made me feel resentful and taken for granted.

Now, when appropriate, I remind myself, “I’m doing this for myself. This is what I want.” I want orderly kitchen cabinets. I want to decorate for Halloween. I want to make periodic giant photo albums to document our family adventures. All true.

This may sound selfish, but in fact, being honest with myself makes me less demanding and resentful. It saves me from being despondent if people don’t appreciate my efforts. I don’t expect them to respond in any way at all.

In my observation, it’s very easy to fall into this trap. I remember talking to a woman who was compiling an enormous book of her memories, reflections, and favorite quotations to give to her daughters. “That way,” she told me, “they can really know their mother.”

But I wondered: 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 books, and I love them. And maybe the daughters will pore over this book. But when this woman does it “for her daughters,” it seems inevitable that she’ll expect them to react in a certain way—and they may not oblige her. I can imagine a conversation where she angrily tells them, “You’re so ungrateful, I spent years putting this together for you, and you can’t even sit down 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 if they don’t love it (also possible).

Along the same lines, sometimes we say we’re doing something for someone else as a way to justify an activity that we want to do for our own pleasure, but somehow don’t feel entitled to do. Because we think it would be selfish or self-indulgent to do it for ourselves, we excuse it—even unconsciously—by saying that we’re doing it for someone else’s benefit.

But then, what if that person says, “Yes, you’ve been making this effort, but I don’t care.” You’d feel disappointed, maybe even enraged.

A friend told me, “I wanted to leave something wonderful to my children one day, so I’ve put together a great collection of model cars. I’ve traveled, I’ve searched, and one day I can give it to them.”

But I wondered—will his children want this collection? Will they appreciate it? Also, his children both live in New York City, in small apartments. How will they even have room for the collection? It’s not a valuable collection, so it’s not something that will give them more financial security. Really, I think my friend wanted to justify the time and money he spent on his collection, so he told himself that he was doing it for them.

When I was on my book tour for my book Outer Order, Inner Calm, I was joking with some people about how I always make my bed, even in a hotel room on the morning 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’ll do this so you don’t have to work in a messy 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, sometimes that kind of thinking can lead all too 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 or notices what I do.” 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.

I’ve realized that the important thing is to be honest with myself. If I’m truly doing something for someone else, that’s worth noting. It’s important to do things for others. But if I’m really doing it to suit myself, it’s better for me to admit it. And it’s also better for the people around me, too. I do it for myself.




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