The Role of Healthy Selfishness in a Happy Life

Most people think the term healthy selfishness is an oxymoron. Realistically it’s necessary if you want to be happy, even if you have been taught that it’s bad to be selfish. And you may have been taught that’s it’s better to be selfless — to always put others before yourself. Martyrs are the extreme example of selflessness and many people believe that martyrdom is the surest route to sainthood.

But consider this: Everything that you do everyday that contributes to your survival is an act of selfishness. The act of eating is selfish — but if you didn’t eat, you’d die. Sexual activity, even if it’s purely for the purpose of procreation is selfish — you’re having sex because you want children.

The distinction between healthy selfishness and unhealthy selfishness lies not in the act itself but in its consequences. Here are some examples of healthy selfishness:

  • Catching up on your sleep when you’re exhausted.

  • Participating regularly in religious services to satisfy your spiritual needs.

  • Exercising several hours a week at your favorite gym.

  • Having two drinks of alcohol per day — according to scientists, it relieves stress.

  • Lingering in bed for a couple of extra minutes every morning.

  • Being honest because you know how burdensome life can be when it’s full of lies.

And here are some examples of unhealthy selfishness:

  • Overeating to the point of obesity — it endangers your health and shortens your life.

  • Smoking cigarettes — they’re a leading cause of cancer and heart disease.

  • Unloading your anger on a family member just because it feels good.

  • Drinking to excess.

  • Refusing to wear a condom when you have sex.

  • Blaming a coworker for a mistake you made.

  • Always beating your kids at games just because you can.

Put the “I” back in identity

There is such a thing as being too generous — giving too much of yourself, spreading yourself too thin.

Susie was that type of person. She spent every hour of her waking day anticipating and satisfying the needs of her husband, her two children, her elderly parents, her in-laws, her co-workers, and her neighbors. Meanwhile, she totally neglected her own needs.

Susie once stated that she waited for her family to order in a restaurant and then — because she was responsible for the family budget — she always chose the least expensive thing on the menu for herself. “I want them to have whatever they want; I can eat anything,” she said. It was only after her divorce from her husband of 30 years that she began to cook things she liked.

Is Susie an exception? No, there are millions of Susies out there, people whose identity, whose sense of self, is inextricably tied to the needs and wants of other people. They’re too generous with their time, too generous with their money, and too generous with their energy. They only think of others and never of themselves — and, mistakenly, they think this will make them happy.

Make today the day you begin putting the “I” back into your own identity. Start by honestly answering the following questions without any reference to your spouse, children, family members, or anyone else.

  • What do I want to do on my day off?

  • Where do I want to go on vacation?

  • Who do I want to have lunch with this weekend?

  • What book do I want to buy for myself today?

  • What new hairstyle do I want?

  • Who do I want to vote for?

  • What kind of car do I want?

  • Would I rather take a nap this afternoon or mow the lawn?

Everyone else around you, whose needs you’ve spent all your time satisfying, may not like it when you suddenly start putting some “I” back into your identity — and back into your daily schedule of activities. You’ll likely experience some resistance, but you need to persist anyway.

Be a good scout

Healthy selfishness is synonymous with being a good scout. The Boy Scout oath not only says that you’ll do your best to fulfill your duty to God and country and help other people at all times, it says you’ll keep yourself physically, mentally, and morally straight. Being a good scout, in short, means finding a balance between serving your own needs and serving the needs of others.

Take time for yourself

Think about how you spend your time each day. If you’re getting 8 hours of sleep every night, that leaves 16 waking hours.

Figure out how many of those hours you spend in the service of others (working, running errands, attending meetings, chauffeuring kids around town) and how many hours you spend purely on yourself (reading the newspaper, taking a nap, meditating). For most people, the number of hours you spend on yourself is much smaller than the number you spend on others.

Here’s the question I want you to ask yourself: “Am I short-changing myself when it comes to how I allocate my time?” If you spend less than one hour a day addressing your own selfish needs, wants, interests, you are.

If you’re employed, how valuable is the time you spend servicing the needs of others? Now, ask yourself: “How valuable is the time I spend with and on myself?” Is it worth the same as what you get paid to work for others? Worth more? Or worth less? Put a real value on it in terms of dollars and cents. Your answer speaks to how much self-worth you have.

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