The Value of Selfishness

A guide to self-respect in a society obsessed with altruism

From a very young age, we’re taught that one of the greatest risks to our popularity and success as an individual is our own selfishness.

We’re encouraged to think of other people wherever possible — to put their needs before our own. But for some of us, the real issue isn’t that we’re being too selfish. Instead, we’re so hooked on the importance of selflessness that we neglect our own wants and desires.

We stay in jobs that we hate and ignore our talents, relationships that make us miserable while ignoring our deep longing for freedom and uphold friendships that drain our time, energy and happiness.

Why? All in the hopes of validating society’s expectations of us to give freely at the expense of our personal demands.

Ironically, we run into an entirely opposing danger: giving too much. As a result, we wind up feeling miserable, exhausted and depleted.

We simply can’t live like this forever. Otherwise, we might wake up one morning to realise that the majority of our life is now behind us, and our time has been spent doing little more than satisfying other people.

What it Means to be Selfish

Being selfish from time-to-time is, without a doubt, wholly necessary to the longevity of our happiness. When making the decision to become more selfish in our lives, though, we have to be careful. There are different kinds of selfishness, and some of them will cause us a lot of problems.

Some people are incredibly selfish — but in a wrong, immoral sense. They exploit and use others to fulfil their own needs, disregarding people out of unkindness and negligence.

On the other hand, there’s a kind of essential selfishness. Perhaps a more term name would be self-respect.

A certain degree of selfishness is required to get anything substantial done in life. Whether it’s getting in better shape, earning more money or succeeding in business, if we wish to do well in something, we need to invest our time. But if all of that time is being given to others, we’ll never make it to where we need to be.

There are moments during which it’s essential to sidestep those persistent demands of others in favour of our own needs — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Many of us could benefit from flicking a switch in our attitudes. That is, to remind ourselves that being selfish isn’t always such a terrible thing. Sometimes it is, but sometimes a little selfishness is just the thing we need to find success and happiness in our lives.

Indeed, in our so-called selfish pursuits, whether it’s writing a book or going travelling alone, we might meet people that disagree with our actions. But that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean we’re doing anything inherently wrong, but that they, too, have fallen into the trap of thinking that being selfish is unacceptable.

The Four Stages of Life

When discussing the morality of selfishness, we can learn a lot from Hindu philosophy, which divides life into four distinct stages. These are:

  1. Brachmacharya — the bachelor/student: The first stage is focused on learning and acquiring knowledge science, philosophy and self-discipline.
  2. Grihastha — household life: The second stage is married life, defined by the duties of maintaining a household and educating children.
  3. Vanaprastha — retired life: Next is retired life, during which the individual withdraws from working responsibilities and takes more of an advisory role as an elder.
  4. Sannyasa — renounced life: Last is the renounced stage of life, most relevant to selfishness. It’s the time during which we surrender our obligations and life freely and simply.

The fourth stage, Sannyasa, is the stage of life that’s reserved for attending to our personal wants and needs. It’s a time for simple living, renouncing our responsibilities and living peacefully into our old age.

After years of service to others, Sannyasa is an essential period during which we give back to ourselves. But why should we wait until we’re very old and tired to start caring for our own needs? Shouldn’t we be doing that anyway?

Indeed, there are years when we must keep our heads down and study, years reserved for parenthood and working commitments — but outside of these times, outside of these devoted, giving moments, we should also have moments for ourselves.

Sometimes, it’s okay for us to turn around and declare that enough is enough. That we’re putting our foot down and spending a little time looking after ourselves. That isn’t selfishness, it’s self-preservation. Self-respect. It’s essential to our long-term happiness and mental wellbeing.

The Takeaway

In a society so predicated upon altruism, it’s crucial that we remember the importance of selfishness. Not indifference to other peoples’ needs, not exploitation, not unkindness — but necessary moments of self-respect.

There are times when we might need to take a few weeks away from work to recover from personal struggles, times when we might need to see less of our spouse and more of our friends and times when we need to throw up our boundaries and tell people that we need a break.

The most important thing, though, is not to feel guilty when making such decisions. Being kind to yourself doesn’t have to mean being unkind to others. You can be both kind, generous and appropriately selfish, but finding the right balance is essential.

Before You Leave

I run a daily newsletter The Daily Grind where I send out tips to creatives and entrepreneurs about success, wellbeing, goal-setting and honing their craft.

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Owner of Mind Cafe | Let’s chat on Instagram: @adriandrew__

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