Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness. This year I started doing more and more things that I love, and sometimes that meant disappointing someone else in favour of disappointing myself. Sometimes people thought that was selfish. It made me think: what does it really mean to be selfish?
I used to think that the worst vice you could have was selfishness. Sure, being vain, or lazy, or jealous was bad too. But there was something about being selfish that just aggravated me a little more. How could you be happy if you only cared about yourself? How could you live with yourself knowing that other people could have used your help, but still only care about and for yourself? Looking at it that way, I used to wear myself out trying to please others. Make them like me, give them no reason not to. I thought that if I would care for others, go out of my way to help them, then one day that care and kindness would be returned to me.
It’s been a while since I thought that way, and in that time I’ve changed. I’ve started making distinctions between two kinds of people: the selfish and the narcissists. I’ve encountered many a narcissist in my life and all of them were cold, lonely people, whether they admitted it or not. The poor things couldn’t see anyone but themselves and, in that, drove everybody around them away. So completely obsessed with themselves they didn’t even notice until it was too late.
On the other hand, the last few years I’ve met many amazing people. Warm and kind and happy people, so carefree and down to earth that a worry-head like me naturally started wondering how they did it. I wanted to be as happy as them, as carefree as them, so I asked. One of my closest friends gave me the best answer. “I only do things that make me happy”. And they’re right. If you only do those things that make you happy, you always choose for yourself and many would say that’s a bad thing, but why? Can it not make me happy to hold the door? Can it not make me happy to tell someone that they’re beautiful? There is absolutely no reason for us to do things that do not make us happy, because most of the time what makes us happy are not the things we do for ourselves while setting others back. At least I don’t make myself happy that way. But even if there were to be a choice between helping yourself and helping others, it’s not necessarily bad to choose yourself. It’s your life after all. A few years ago, I heard someone say that we all have a God complex. We all want to save the world. But it’s OK if you can only save one person, and it’s OK if that person is you.
Since I’ve had that realisation my life has changed a bit. No major existential midlife crisis-like change, but still. I don’t see a reason anymore to not do the things that I love, because they either make others happy, or make me happy and have no impact on others. I’ve started to accept that it is impossible to make others happy all the time. Happiness is something you can only create yourself and therefore it is perfectly fine to do so, even if that sometimes happens to disappoint others. The world can be hard out there and if you don’t look out for yourself then who will? Thinking of yourself first does not mean you do not think of others. The opposite of selfish isn’t other-ish, it’s self-less. It’s not a shift of attention from the self to the other, like the value that we ascribe to it, it’s the deletion of the self. In what situation can you take care of others if you don’t have a self?
I don’t always practice what I preach, but I try to. And I hope that if I keep reminding myself that it’s good to be selfish every once in a while, that I should choose for myself first, then at least I will be happier. And I think others will be too.