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There’s no real difference between selfishness and selflessness if we define these words the way most people understand them, whereas selfish acts are in pursuit of enriching yourself, and selfless acts are those which enrich others without material benefit to yourself. Even selfless acts are typically undertaken out of personal self interest.

Simply ask yourself if you feel good after “selflessly” helping someone out and you’ll see if you were really selfless or simply acted in a way that benefits both you and others. If it benefited yourself, and if that’s a part of the outcome you sought, even if it is just the satisfaction, then you actually acted in self interest.

Real selflessness, the literal selflessness, would be acting against your own wishes, values, health and well being. Such acts would leave you feel impoverished and no better off emotionally for it either. You would be less happy, and felt less valuable. This isn’t really what we should be advocating for. We shouldn’t be advising each other to do things that actually take away from us and leave us feeling no better. Besides, is an act of altruism that you committed against your own will, and after which you felt zero satisfaction, really an act of altruism or is it actually just borderline coercion?

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Between people who give because they feel good giving, because they want to give, because giving enriches their own life too, and people who give because they have to, but don’t really want to, most people will appreciate the former more.

As a side note this is just a part of the reason why taxation is a flawed form of charity, and why taxpayers aren’t really appreciated by those who take their money away. Coercion doesn’t work. An act must be selfish, even if it helps others and even if it is technically altruistic, for everyone to be a winner.

What we really want is selfish acts that benefit others. That’s the holy grail. Such acts enrich others while simultaneously enriching yourself. This leads to overall win-win situations, win-win relationships, and ultimately making everyone better off.

Such acts also allow you to help the maximum number of people. If every act of helping others also enriches you in some way you will be that much more likely and capable to help someone else again.

Besides honest charitable activities, and by honest I mean acts of charity which you are genuinely happy to conduct, another great way of helping others while simultaneously enriching yourself is entrepreneurship. Having a mentality oriented around serving other people, providing as much value to other people as you can, helping solve world’s problems and helping make the world a better place is the best mentality for success in entrepreneurship. When these are the priorities, and the process of helping is executed properly, success is a side-effect. Making money shouldn’t be front and center, but rather a side-effect of creating value for others. Sounds almost altruistic, doesn’t it?

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In conclusion, I’m not trying to discourage charitable activities nor somehow devalue the work of those who help people even when it doesn’t bring them any material benefit. I’m merely pointing out that if what you’re doing is truly, literally selfless you would probably feel bad about it. You wouldn’t derive anything positive out of the act for your own self. You would derive nothing good from it. If you do, then it’s just a form of a selfish act that is designed in such a way to give a significant and perhaps even disproportionate benefit to others. Altruistic acts should increase the happiness of everyone involved.

I realize that “selfish” is a word with negative connotations, but it shouldn’t be, and if it weren’t this would solve some crucial problems in the world. For example, when a parent tells a child he is selfish in a tone suggesting that this is something negative the parent is instilling in him the idea that it is bad to do things that make him feel good. And that isn’t quite the message we had in mind, is it? The real message should be that it is good to make others happier and richer, and bad to take away what is theirs.

The message isn’t, or certainly shouldn’t be, that you shouldn’t act in your own self interest or that enriching others must automatically mean impoverishing yourself. There’s a big difference. The former approach focuses on the positive; make other people happier and richer. The latter approach focuses on the negative and implies that there’s something wrong about trying to also enrich yourself. The first implies win-win relationships as the desirable default, while the latter implies win-lose.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici | Photo Stock FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Daniel Memetic

My name is Daniel, and I am a front end web developer, editor, and blogger working for Memebridge, a web publishing company focused on offering a variety of resources that improve your knowledge and allow you to be more independent. I mainly write for The Tech FAQ, our biggest resource, which you may want to follow on twitter and like on facebook.

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