Asserting the need for your own happiness (verbally or not) is frowned upon by those who secretly want you to sacrifice your happiness for their own.
I want to first draw a distinction between two brands of egocentrism*, which I’ll label selfishness and self-centredness. In this article, ‘selfish’ will refer to an approach prepared to sacrifice the happiness of others for your own, while ‘self-centred’ will refer simply to a focus on generating happiness for yourself but not necessarily in an exclusionary fashion.
Either way, the core theme of this post is that egocentrism is criminally underrated in my society, and most likely in yours as well. Heavily marginalised people (e.g. the disabled or abused) are generally allowed to vouch for their own interests, but anyone else risks being painted with a brush of narcissism, unwillingness to consider others’ interests, and an inability to think holistically.
For example, even the poorest members of society are often panned by rhetoric of laziness and unwillingness to work when applying for welfare – certainly true for some, but equally certainly not for all. To want a safety net, claim the right-wing, is purely selfish and thus intrinsically immoral. Regardless of the truth of this claim (intriguingly, often made by those who simultaneously vouch for the value of self-interest in free markets), the link between “selfish” and “immoral” is passed off as a self-evident truth.
Of course, there is immense value in altruism and consideration of others’ happiness. Civilization could not function without compassion, and I’ve strongly advocated giving love and happiness to others throughout other posts on this website.
That said, some readers (not all!) will be in a position of having given too much at the expense of their own confidence and life satisfaction. The intention behind this sacrifice is admirable, but the outcome is suboptimal. Under any sensible utilitarian outlook, the ideal outcome is where everyone is happy:
It isn’t always possible to find or realise this “Enlightenment” endgame. The obvious extreme is the impossibility of satisfying a Selfish psychopath who actively takes pleasure in the unhappiness of others without actually causing others to be unhappy (short of some virtual reality), but there are more realistic examples too. A deeply xenophobic patriot will probably always be upset by the success of their immigrant neighbour, and a purely selfish CEO won’t be enthralled by a million dollar cut to their salary to pay their workers better, short of a sudden altruistic epiphany.
Surprisingly often, however, it is possible to generate happiness for all actors involved in a specific interaction. An extreme illustration is an immense feeling of pride and happiness when you give money to charity; the benefit to the recipient is obvious, and the satisfaction of your personal moral code can far outweigh the financial cost you incur.
Just as valuable, though, are win-win interactions which aren’t intuitively conceptualised as mutually beneficial; they’re just a product of the way you live and your personal focuses.
A few nights ago, I caught a bus that also harboured a college party, with perhaps a dozen drunken lads at the back taking off their shirts and bolting out party anthems. Being somewhat of a people watcher, I tried to gauge the reactions of the other sober passengers; most were studiously trying to ignore the racket, more than a handful were grinning or smirking at some point, and only one or two actively seemed irritated.
Now, even when you exclude the happiness generated for the partygoers themselves, it seems to me that their outwardly selfish and antisocial behaviour actually generated a net positive outcome for that bus’ passengers. Apart from the pure amusement during the bus ride, I’ve no doubt that other passengers told the story to others (enhancing their social interactions), or generally were appreciative in retrospect that it made an otherwise routine bus ride more interesting. I can’t fathom that many of the occupants would look back and genuinely wish that they’d had just a little more peace and quiet on the 412 to the City that night.
This isn’t to say that selfish drunkenness will always be a net positive to society… only that it was absolutely fine in this particular instance. The college kids’ self-centred behaviour was probably a net positive, and almost certainly not so negative that it would have been worth suppressing their own fun and desires for the happiness of others that night. To hush themselves and prioritise “good, civilized behaviour” would have been a disservice both to themselves and others.
I won’t attempt to give a metric for deciding if behaviour is justifiably self-centred in this post. You should look for one buried in my words somewhere, but this particular article isn’t intended to help tweak behaviour at the margins of the four approaches outlined in the table above.
Rather, I want to target this advice to only those readers who instinctively adopt the Sacrifice approach. They are the sort of reader to always sit quietly on the bus, who can’t say “No” when asked for a favour, who buckle to their partner in relationships because they are convinced that as long as their partner is happy, they will be too.
My advice is this: Your happiness is just as important as anybody else’s, and if you do not fight for it, nobody else can or will to the same extent.
Hopefully, you are the beneficiary of others’ altruism; your parents, your friends, your coworkers may all care about you and try to make you happy. This effort to be appreciated and largely accepted (not to mention reciprocated!), but you mustn’t rely on it. They will rarely be in a better or equally able position to evaluate exactly what your happiness requires, and the balance they strike between your happiness, their own happiness, and the happiness of other loved ones will not always be a balance you would have chosen yourself.
No, you cannot Sacrifice for others and merely rely on others to Sacrifice for you in return. At best it will not work, at worst you will become a doormat, and you will almost invariably become bitter and unwilling to fulfill your end of the bargain anyway. Rather, your goal must be an Enlightened approach where you maintain your goodwill to others but nevertheless protect your own interests.
This requires a confidence and assertiveness that is unfortunately difficult to learn through a moderate approach; if you are naturally submissive or meek, you will initially find it impossible to balance your altruism and self-centredness and default back to the Sacrifice approach.
Perhaps you could drunkenly board a bus with your mates and talk loudly… but could you suffer a glare from an irritated passenger, mentally acknowledge that their happiness matters too, and continue to shout obscenities anyway? Could you resist shrinking into your seat and trying to rationalise that you struck a good compromise (having some fun, then retreating) to avoid the realisation that you backed down in cowardice?
For some who would Sacrifice their happiness for others, there may be only one path to the ultimate goal of Enlightenment… they have to become a totally Selfish jerk for a while and focus completely on asserting their own happiness over that of others’, with the aim of developing the confidence to strike a more reasonable and altruistic balance later in life. To wit, they must learn to say “No” before they can back up a “Maybe”. Their personal development path will accordingly look like this:
A word of warning: Switching to a Selfish policy and enjoying the happiness previously denied to you can be addictive if you have previously been too Sacrificial. It may become a natural part of your personality, and you may forget the eventual goal of resumed altruism or make no serious effort to attain it. I can therefore only recommend this approach to readers who can conceptualize that healthier worldview (try to think of someone you know who makes everyone happy seemingly without self-sacrifice) and are determined to attain it. If you are filled with resentment towards others for the expectations they place on you, do not take this article as a recommendation to pursue selfishness as a policy of revenge. It is not.
It is therefore for any submissive readers determined to behave morally towards others but hoping for a little more personal happiness – and only for those readers – that I recommend the first approach below as a temporary step:
The Selfish approach generally prioritises your happiness above anyone else’s. It is perhaps easiest to define through its necessary limitations to avoid pure sociopathy or psychopathy. I can think of at least three:
- Don’t try to hurt others (e.g. by bullying or refusing to compliment someone) – the goal is to emphasise your happiness, not actively take away others’
- Avoid acts that will permanently define you (e.g. by committing a murder) – the goal is to learn assertiveness and later shift to a healthier worldview, and lingering acts of selfishness will undermine that
- Don’t completely cut out altruism (e.g. by never taking out the trash in a sharehouse) – the goal is learning a skillset, and abusing it to its absolute extreme isn’t necessary for this development, nor worth being quickly abandoned or hated by your former networks as a result
Otherwise, you should feel free to exercise selfish behaviour wherever it presents itself to you. The more submissive you have previously been, the more uncomfortable this will be. For some time, you may hate yourself, and try to be selfish as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, and fumble over any vaguely assertive phrase. That’s fine; just go through the motions for now. You are experiencing first hand the oppression of the stigma of self-value.
Later, you will want to pursue selfishness as a more conscious personal development exercise. Seek out negative reactions from others, and mentally wrangle yourself into apathy about them. Focus on feeling completely comfortable while asserting yourself over others or your environment. Actively look for opportunities to be selfish, and see how far they can take you. You aren’t being selfish for its own sake, or because you enjoy feeling like an asshole while doing asshole things; you are being selfish to develop the confidence to stand up for yourself and learn that most of the time nothing awful will come of it. Push the boundaries and be mentally cognizant of what you are learning or feeling from each selfish behaviour.
One way to approach this imperative for cognizant is time blocking – you can create “time quotas” for selfishness on various scales. You might set aside two hours a day for purely selfish pursuits (and you reject any other demands that would take up this time), or decide that you’re going to be a jerk for six months before trying to pursue a more altruistic strategy again with your bolstered confidence. Another approach is to use “incident quotas”, where you might mandate three selfish acts per day or per week, for example. These approaches aren’t perfect, in that you will also eventually need to learn how to protect your interests as they are challenged (not just when you have given yourself permission in advance), but they are an extremely solid start.
It may be easiest to start by asserting yourself over your environment, which cannot really object to your behaviour. A few examples, with a fairly mild intensity:
- Play music through your phone (without headphones) on public transport
- Take up more space in your seats and feel free to spread your legs or arms wider
- Walk slowly and refuse to move out of anybody’s way (except the disabled or pregnant)
- Walk on the grass, right past a “do not walk on the grass” sign
- Litter somewhere if you can’t find a bin
When you are more comfortable, you can assert yourself over other people:
- Refuse to let someone jump a queue and argue loudly with them
- Jump a queue yourself and see what happens
- Say “No” to a favour or demand with no reason or explanation
- Tell a slack housemate it’s their turn to do the dishes for the first time in months
- When organising dinner with your friends, stand by the restaurant you want to go to
You won’t always get your way. Sometimes you won’t have full choice in the matter and your friends will just go grab sushi without you. Sometimes your resolve will crumble in the face of a very insistent or very reasonable demand from others. Sometimes you will be labelled a jerk and criticised by others for your attitude. No matter what, maintain a selfish attitude: My happiness is more important than theirs right now, and I will do my very best to protect it.
Remember that anyone who values their happiness over yours and expects you to sacrifice accordingly is equally selfish, and they can go fuck themselves. Remember that your ultimate goal is to develop the confidence to protect everyone’s interests, including theirs, and have faith in the necessary cost you are paying to help others in the long run. Remember that it’s all going to be okay, and being selfish for a while won’t do any irreparable damage.
If you are in this advice’s target demographic, you have historically given to others far more than they deserve. It’s your turn for happiness now, at least for a while. Enjoy it!
Once you are comfortable standing up for yourself, it is time to shift to a healthier worldview, which once again takes into consideration other peoples’ interests. This doesn’t mean you are going to resume sacrificing your happiness for others. Rather, you are going to rely on your improved skillset and character to walk a path which bolsters the happiness of others while maintaining your own (or even taking it higher still). We now shift to discussion of that worldview, which I’ve flippantly termed Enlightenment above. Despite the name’s usual connotations, this worldview still requires that you:
Here’s the crux of the post: How can self-centredness possibly be compatible with altruism, and why do I seem to be advocating self-centredness explicitly despite recommending a balance with altruism? My answer to both questions is essentially that you need to take care of your own happiness, to a large extent, before you can generate happiness for others in a sustainable fashion.*
Very few people can sacrifice for others their entire life and think nothing of it; more often, constant sacrifice builds resentment and the generous behaviour either ceases eventually or is replaced by spite and a lashing out. Rather, some prioritisation of your own happiness counterintuitively also allows you to give more to others.
This policy has some obvious limits as well. A billionaire hoarding their wealth purely for themselves may do a wonderful job of protecting their own interests, but has sacrificed any real attempt at altruism by doing so. A sensible degree of self-centredness puts yourself first, but does not forget that runners-up deserve consideration and happiness too.
Here are a few of the mechanisms this approach uses to generate happiness for everybody:
- WIN-WIN AND BETTER DEALS – You find yourself looking for approaches that satisfy everyone instead of immediately giving way. With some creativity, you’ll find a surprising amount of mutually beneficial arrangements can exist where previously only compromise seemed possible. Even if compromise is necessary, the best possible deal – in terms of total happiness between all parties involved – is usually one where your interests are represented at least partially. (Better for two people to have a seat on the bus than have the marginal benefit of one person taking up both seats and the other having to stand, right?)
- SATISFY OTHERS’ ALTRUISM – Most people you interact with will probably be happier if you seem happy too. Even if they have to compromise to you some of the time, this will most likely be offset by the satisfaction they derive from the feeling of a healthy relationship with you (though they probably won’t be able to identify this as the cause, and may consciously wish they got their way more often). On a more temporary scale, we generally simply enjoy seeing other people happy!
- NATURALLY GIVING TO OTHERS – The happier you are, the more likely you are to feel genuinely altruistic and love others. You won’t feel threatened by others’ happiness (since you do not permit it to compromise your own), which makes you more willing to facilitate and add to their happiness. Notice that bullies are generally deeply unhappy themselves; taking care of yourself is correlated with taking care of others, not contradictory.
- LEVERAGE FOR ALTRUISM – Assertiveness and confidence are necessary to succeed in most aspects of life, from your finances to winning friends to finding a partner. Relatively few people want to hang out with the insecure and depressed. A level of self-centredness that helps you achieve your life goals will simultaneously put you in a better position and give you more resources to help others.
- KNOWLEDGE OF HAPPINESS – One consequence of the “leverage for altruism” mechanism above that merits specific mention is that focusing on your own happiness teaches you more about happiness generally, and how to inspire it in others. (If I had not taught myself confidence this way, I could not run this website which helps others in turn.) Before helping others lead a good life, you should know what it means to lead one yourself.
Have faith that the best possible world is one in which you are happy too, and that protecting your happiness will lead to better outcomes. Be self-centred not so the ultimate outcome will actually completely favour you, but because the best outcome takes everyone’s interests into consideration and nobody else will advocate for yours as well or as passionately as you can.
There is nothing wrong with standing up for what you want. It does not necessarily come at the expense of others, but even if it does, you are just as worthy of happiness and guilty pleasure as they are.
Be happy and protect that happiness – nobody else can do it for you.
Be reasonable, but not a pushover – it will ultimately satisfy nobody.
Be considerate of others, but don’t censor your desires completely – there are enough others who will attempt to do that for you.
* I will probably only use this distinction for the purposes of this post; it may not be ported over to any other articles with perfect accuracy. Obviously, my use of “Enlightenment” will also vary wildly across posts.
** There’s an ulterior motive for recommending self-centredness explicitly, too – it makes for a more provocative headline, to trick people into reading advice which is actually very much altruistic at its core and overall trying to promote moral behaviour. 😉