The Selfish Spectrum

rainbow-umbrellaNothing has contributed more to human misery than the pursuit of happiness.

It’s not because happiness is a bad thing.

Far from it.

But we’ve made misery a necessary part of happiness.


To understand that, we’ll need to have a look at what I call…

The Selfish Spectrum

Imagine a horizontal stick. One end represents being Selfish and the other represents being Selfless.

[Or if you don’t feel like imagining, look at the graphic below, made by Larry Coppenrath. Thanks, Larry!]

The Selfish Spectrum

In order to pursue our own happiness, we must move towards the Selfish end of the stick.

And if we want to make others happy, we must move towards the Selfless end.

That’s the Selfish Spectrum.

It pits our happiness against the happiness of others and presents a false dichotomy between the two.

To be happy, we must be happy at the expense of others.

To make others happy, we must make sacrifices for the sake of others.

Happiness is tied to misery.

Either be miserable and make others happy, or happy and make others miserable.

When happiness is discussed, it’s often placed within the context of the Selfish Spectrum.

Your own happiness is often justified only as a means to the happiness of others.

“Taking care of your health isn’t selfish, because it allows you to better serve others.”

But rather than explain happiness within the Selfish Spectrum and find a “middle way” between self-indulgence and self-sacrifice, we should abandon this false dichotomy entirely and value our own happiness as well as the happiness of others.

Without the need for sacrifices or score cards.

There Is No Spectrum

Your happiness does not have to be at other people’s expense, and being moral doesn’t demand that you sacrifice yourself for other people’s sake.

You can be happy and make others happy.

Your happiness matters and other people’s happiness matters.

We can only truly appreciate our own happiness when we respect other people’s right to the pursuit of their own happiness.

And contributing to other people’s happiness doesn’t take away from our own, but can enhance it. Provided that we value other people’s happiness and aren’t forced to make sacrifices.

But don’t relationships demand sacrifice?

Only if you hate your partner.

Why would you see your partner’s happiness as a sacrifice of your own?

Why would you demand that your partner make sacrifices so you can be happy?

Don’t accept living within the Selfish Spectrum.

It’s a recipe for misery. If not for you, then for those around you.

And is living with miserable people a conducive environment for your own happiness?

I don’t think so.

As a human being, you have a variety of needs (as the Personal Growth Map illustrates).

You can’t be happy if you pursue your Spiritual goals while ignoring your Physical needs.

And you won’t experience genuine happiness if you don’t work on building your Social relationships, which means that you have to value other people’s happiness in the same way you would like them to value your own.

You may not be able to spend your entire day on Recreational activities because your partner and children need your attention and love.

But that’s not a sacrifice.

That’s healthy, balanced living.

In what ways can you be happy?

In what ways can you make others happy?

You know you’re on the right path when the things that make you happy don’t hurt others, and the things that make others happy bring you joy.

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography


Waiting for Gratitude

sundial_specialists8It’s extremely easy to develop an unhealthy obsession with gratitude (yes, there are healthy obsessions, too!), where we expect to be thanked for every good deed we do, and can’t seem to move on with our lives when others don’t express their appreciation of our works.

We desperately seek an answer to the moral riddle:

If a good deed is done, and no one expresses gratitude for it, is it still a good deed?

And lean towards the view that it’s only a good deed when gratitude is expressed. Otherwise, it’s just a deed.

Therefore, to bring meaning to our lives and to sprinkle moral goodness on our actions, we wait for gratitude.

And wait some more.

And, you guessed it… Wait even more.

At times we drop hints: “I vacuumed the house when you were out.”

Other times we ask questions: “Did you notice the house is vacuumed?”

And desperate times call for desperate measures: “I know I did a bad job at vacuuming the house. I’m terrible at it. But I thought you might be happy to come home to a clean house.”

When we don’t receive the gratitude we expect, we lose motivation for doing more good deeds. It just doesn’t seem worth it. After all, it’s not a good deed without gratitude, right?

We fail to come to terms with 3 important facts that pave the way for joyous living:

  1. People aren’t good at expressing gratitude: Even when people are moved to tears by your kindness and generosity, they may not know how to express their gratitude. At times, the more appreciative someone is, the less likely they are to express their appreciation, simply because they don’t know how to. How do you thank someone who saved your son from a burning building? I don’t know, either.
  2. Different people express gratitude differently: Even if people are comfortable with expressing gratitude, it might not be in the way you expect them to. Just because you received an email thanking you for your efforts and not a bouquet of flowers doesn’t mean that your help isn’t appreciated. It might just mean that others don’t express gratitude the way you would.
  3. Good deeds are good, even if they’re not appreciated: Using gratitude as your sole motivational trigger is unhealthy. Why? For starters, see Fact #1 above. Another reason why depending on gratitude for motivation is unhealthy is that good deeds are an extension of your own values, not how others perceive – or appreciate – your actions. Cynical people often question the intentions of those who find joy in helping others. Does that mean you should question and doubt your own intentions just because others don’t expect to meet people that have goodwill towards fellow human beings? Of course not. And it shouldn’t deter you from the good work you can do in the world.

It’s better not to expect gratitude than to base your life on receiving it. By appreciating your own actions and being aware of the values you are living by, you can fuel your inner drive to make the world a  better place.

Don’t wait for permission or approval to do good.

Be good because YOU deserve to be.

Photo credit: specialists8


The Gold-Plated Rule

The Golden Rule is an ethical code that transcends cultural and religious boundaries. It appears in the teachings of the world’s religions and acts as a moral compass for us to navigate the course we take through our daily decisions.

The most popular form of the Golden Rule is:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
~ Jesus Christ

There are many benefits to living by the Golden Rule, which I can’t recount in a single blog post. But I would like to highlight 3 lessons from the Golden Rule:

1- The Two Sides of Social Interactions

There is a huge difference between mocking someone and being mocked by someone. You may enjoy mocking others, but don’t appreciate being mocked. You may enjoy hurting others, but don’t enjoy getting hurt. The Golden Rule asks us to empathize with the person on the other side of the interaction: If we do not appreciate being treated in the same way we treat them, then we shouldn’t treat them that way.

Whenever we interact with others, we should consider both sides of the interaction, and not treat others in a way we wouldn’t like to be treated.

2- Mutual Happiness

The Golden Rule expects us to respect and value our own happiness, as well as the happiness of others. Since we appreciate it when others contribute to our happiness, we should enjoy contributing to theirs. It is not a matter of either I’m happy, or others are happy. We can work together so that everyone is happy.

3- Setting an Example

The way you treat others sets an example to others on how they should treat you. Therefore, rather than expect others to change, you should take responsibility for your own conduct, and set a positive example for others to follow, in how they deal with you, and how they deal with others. This is a powerful contribution we can make to society: When we work on our own conduct, we encourage others to work on theirs.

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

Sadly, though, the Golden Rule isn’t the moral code we’re living by. Instead, we’re living by a rule that appears golden, but isn’t.

What we’re living by is the Gold-Plated Rule.

“Do unto others as they do unto you.”
~ The Gold-Plated Rule

Instead of considering how others should behave, and setting an example for them to follow, we use the example they already set for us!

If people treat us with disrespect, then we treat them with disrespect.

We react according to their behavior, rather than mindfully living according to our own principles and values.

Rather than challenge the status quo, we conform and contribute to it!

Rather than bring about positive change, we help entrench negative traits!

This is justified in the name of fairness.

If we are mistreated, it’s only fair that we respond in kind. And, of course, we want to be fair, don’t we?

In the name of morality we justify immorality.

We value karma and relish the thought of divine retribution, because we want to see others suffer in the same way we suffered.

The Gold-Plated Rule steers us towards the lowest common denominator in human relationships.

A single act can spread like wildfire in a community, destroying relationships and inflaming bad intentions and evil schemes for retaliation.

The Gold-Plated Rule doesn’t help individuals – and societies – prosper. It helps them self-destruct.

It’s important for us to consciously commit to living by the Golden Rule, and to completely abandon the Gold-Plated Rule.


Organized and Personal Religions

You may assume that people have a choice to make in their lives: to either follow an organized religion, or carve out their own personal religion (collection of beliefs, rituals and moral code) to live by.

But that would be a wrong assumption to make.

It’s not a question of either/or. You always adhere to a personal religion, whether you wish to acknowledge this fact or not.

No matter how hard you try to adhere to the teachings of an organized religion (should you choose to do so), you will always be living by your own personal religion.

Your personal religion can be strongly shaped by the organized religion you adhere to. But it always exists separately to organized religion.

While organized religion may offer you a set of beliefs, you are always the one who makes the connections between those beliefs. You’re always the one who relates those beliefs to your personal life experiences. In matters of life and religion, the spokesmen and women of organized religion can’t speak on your behalf (i.e. on behalf of your personal religion). You are the only spokesman or woman of your personal religion.

Your personal religion expresses what you truly believe in, how you truly feel and how you will conduct yourself in life. It defines what your true priorities are. If you want to know what you believe in, you can’t ask anyone else for answers. You must look to your own personal religion.

Of course, you can always ask others questions. About what an organized religion teaches or what other people believe in. But religious beliefs aren’t transferred automagically as soon as you claim membership to an organized religion. Your consciousness must become aware of a belief and then become convinced of its truthfulness. Just because you are told that your organized religion teaches X, Y and Z, that’s not a guarantee that you – as an individual – will embrace these teachings wholeheartedly.

Every religion I’m aware of has been shattered into separate sects, each with its own set of beliefs and practices. Divisions usually arise when an adherent of a religion senses a strong divide between his personal religion and the teachings of his organized religion. To eliminate the contradiction, he establishes an organized religion based on his personal religion. This happens to individuals and groups. Its origin is almost always the need to fully express one’s personal religion.

So why is it so important to draw a distinction between organized religion and personal religion?

You cannot experience personal growth by being oblivious to your own person and all the factors that influence your life. You need to know who you are as a person. What you think, how you think, what you feel, why you feel it, what experiences shaped your life, what motivates you, what annoys you, what principles you uphold, who you admire, why you admire them, what you enjoy, what bores you and a string of other questions that are personal to you.

No other person can answer these questions on your behalf. The Pope himself can’t answer these questions on behalf of a single Roman Catholic (apart from himself, of course).

You should be comfortable with the fact that you have your personal religion, without feeling guilty that it doesn’t fully match your organized religion. What you need to work on is your personal religion. That’s the key to success and well-being.

Whenever you think about the teachings of your organized religion, dig deeper to find the true teachings you are living by:

What do I think? How do I feel? What will I do?

Ultimately, these are the three questions that will shape your life.


Why Selfishness is a Good Thing

One of the most common moral principles taken for granted to be true, without questioning its validity and consequences, is the principle that selfishness is evil. No matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, it is always our thoughts and our feelings that are brought into question, but never the principle itself. To question the principle is akin to blasphemy.

But just as it was once blasphemous to state that the earth is round, the virtue of selfishness is a fact we must come to accept at one point or another. In other words, those who are still insisting that selflessness is a virtue might as well believe that the earth is flat.

In this article I would like to clear up the confusion surrounding selfishness, and to highlight the fact that not only does the problem with selfishness have nothing to do with selfishness itself, but that selfishness is a necessary quality for personal growth and the foundation for human happiness.

If you think what I just said is nonsense, then I suggest you read on…

The Meaning of Selfishness

Merriam-Webster defines selfish as:

1- concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
2- arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others <a selfish act>‘s definitions are:

1- devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.
2- characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself: selfish motives.

And offers the following definitions:

1-  Concerned chiefly or only with oneself: “Selfish men were . . . trying to make capital for themselves out of the sacred cause of human rights” Maria Weston Chapman.
2- Arising from, characterized by, or showing selfishness: a selfish whim.

In mentioning all these dictionary definitions I don’t intend to clarify the meaning of the word, but to point out the ambiguity in the definitions. All the definitions seem to blend two ideas together:

1- One is selfish if he is concerned primarily with his own well-being
2- If he is selfish, the pursuit of his well-being is at the expense, or with disregard for, the well-being of others

But the two ideas aren’t inherently tied together. And this is where the confusion about selfishness originates. We have been fed the idea that if we pursue our own well-being, then we do so at other people’s expense and, therefore, we must be primarily concerned with other people’s well-being, if we wish to be moral.

The problem with selfishness isn’t the primary concern with our own well-being. That’s never a problem. To identify the root problem with selfishness, it’s important to distinguish between Bad Selfishness and Good Selfishness. As you are about to find out, Bad Selfishness has never and will never serve one’s own well-being, which goes to show that concern for one’s well-being isn’t the root cause of the problems commonly associated with selfishness.

Bad Selfishness

Imagine a person with the following characteristics and behaviors:

  • Not interested in what others have to say, or how they feel
  • Inconsiderate in what he says and speaks his mind, no matter how hurtful his words are
  • Is willing to make a sale at the expense of honesty, either by overlooking the faults in his products or exaggerating the benefits they offer
  • Is willing to take credit for work his colleagues or employees have done
  • Doesn’t care about his partner’s happiness, but only seeks what makes him happy
  • Doesn’t care about social problems or political causes

While all these characteristics are traditionally associated with selfishness, the question we need to ask is this:

Do these characteristics and behaviors advance this person’s well-being?

The short answer is: no. The longer answer is: it may do so in the short-term, but definitely not the long-term.

A person who doesn’t express interest in those around him will find it difficult to gain friends and build lasting relationships. People will avoid him if he is not considerate in how he behaves, and he will quickly lose people’s trust (and his sales) if he is dishonest.

Which leads us to ask a more important question:

How can these characteristics be associated with selfishness, when they do not advance the individual’s well-being?

If selfishness is primary concern for one’s own well-being, then these characteristics shouldn’t be categorized as selfish. It doesn’t matter how they affect other people, the individual himself is sabotaging his own well-being by behaving in such a way.

The problem doesn’t originate with pursuing one’s own well-being, since these characteristics clearly reveal that a “selfish” person isn’t achieving his well-being. The problem with Bad Selfishness is the disregard for the facts of reality and how well-being should be pursued.

Bad Selfishness looks for shortcuts to achieve happiness and success. It is a narrow view of life that blurs out some essential factors for happiness and long-term well-being, because such a person seeks instant gratification, without considering all the consequences of his behavior.

Bad Selfishness is the pursuit and gratification of a whim. It overlooks facts and principles of success. It is based on the outlooks of “I feel, therefore, I do” and “I want, therefore, I must have” without considering the roots of one’s feelings and the proper means of acquiring what one wants. Such a person experiences frustration, anger, resentment, jealousy, short-term gains and long-term losses because he is not respecting the laws of nature and human happiness.

Good Selfishness

Ignoring reality, both the external (i.e. the world in which we live and the people we come into contact with) and the internal (i.e. our nature as human beings and our individual personalities), never leads to well-being. A person who is truly selfish and who truly wishes to achieve his well-being will not act in ways that harm him, either in the short-term or the long-term. To be able to evaluate what is beneficial to us and what is harmful, we need to develop an understanding of reality.

Good Selfishness is based on the most fundamental principle of success and true happiness: Respect reality.

Good Selfishness never seeks shortcuts that have damaging consequences in the long-term. It looks at reality from the widest possible angle, to evaluate all consequences and determine the most appropriate outlook and behavior in any situation.

It is based on the outlook of: “I am, therefore, I think.

I am a human being, therefore, I must think in order to find the best course of action to take, given my surroundings and my nature.

Good Selfishness doesn’t place the interests and well-being of others above one’s own, but recognizes that other people’s well-being contributes to one’s own. This is why Good Selfishness promotes respect, consideration and kindness.

The Golden Rule of Morality: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a selfish principle. It is based on the fact that your behaviors promote and justify to others the way in which to treat you. If you are kind to others, then you encourage kindness in them. If you are mean to others, then you give others permission (by your own conduct) that they treat you with meanness. Therefore, if you wish to advance your well-being, you should treat others the way you want to be treated. Others may not immediately (or ever) follow your example, but you do not give them justification to treat you in a way you do not like to be treated.

Good Selfishness doesn’t associate one’s own well-being with guilt, nor does it demand that other people’s well-being be pursued whenever one’s own well-being is pursued. You do not have to become healthy in order to serve others. Being healthy, being happy, being successful are proper for an individual, and he doesn’t need other people’s permission to achieve them.

The Golden Rule does not state: “Sacrifice yourself for the sake of others.” If it did, then the continuation of the rule would be: “so that they may sacrifice themselves for your sake.” Selflessness carries its own contradiction. If there is a demand that you sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, then you expect others to sacrifice themselves for your sake. But isn’t that selfish of you to expect?

It is selfish, but Bad Selfish. Good Selfishness – in line with the Golden Rule – doesn’t expect others to sacrifice themselves and their happiness for your sake, nor does it place the demand on you to sacrifice yourself for other people’s sake. You may choose to contribute to other people’s happiness, in the same way you would appreciate other people’s contributions to your own happiness. But it doesn’t place a demand on others to sacrifice their own happiness for you. You have a right to be happy and others have a right to be happy. We can work together to achieve happiness, without compromises or sacrifices or condemning one’s own pursuit of his happiness.

To Give Credit…

During my university years I valued selflessness above all other virtues, and considered selfishness to be the most despicable vice known to man. But I was constantly questioning my beliefs and trying to resolve any inconsistencies in my world-view. One of the things that made me uncomfortable about selflessness – which I initially thought was a failure on my part to resolve – was the inherent hypocrisy in the principle. Why is happiness appropriate for others, but not to me? Why should I make others happy and tend to their needs while I neglect my own happiness and needs? Why should I expect others to shoulder the obligation of making me happy, if I wanted them to be happy?

While this remained an issue for me to address, I was introduced to the writings of Ayn Rand, who considered selfishness a virtue. My knee-jerk reaction to her ideas and her writings was to consider her the anti-Christ, and the embodiment of all that is evil. She promoted selfishness and capitalism, which was enough in my book to consider her the devil. I continued to think that selflessness was a virtue and I simply wasn’t able to resolve the contradiction in it. But as I read more of Ayn Rand’s writings – while trying to keep an open mind and seeking to understand her views for what they are and not how they relate to my existing views – I came to realize the misconceptions I held about selfishness and why she considered it a virtue.

I can’t possibly cover Ayn Rand’s writings and philosophy in this blog post, but I highly recommend her books. In particular, you might want to grab Philosophy: Who Needs It and The Virtue of Selfishness. If you’re not convinced by what I have said, then these two books will contribute more material to the discussion.

What’s your take on selfishness? And how do you see it relating to personal growth and human happiness? Share your thoughts in the comments!