Interest in the self is seen as a negative trait. Those who focus primarily on their own interests, whether they are successful in pursuing these or not, are viewed in a worse light by society than those who focus on others. This has always been true.
I suspect (educated guess incoming) that this stems from our primitive roots. We were always social creatures, and much evidence points to the development of language as forming a large part of our intellect. Communicating with one another was vital for survival, and assisting other tribe members would have benefitted everyone else.
Still, helping others is viewed with a universal reverence. There are a few who dedicate their entire lives to helping others, for no reward. Giving up on one’s own quality of life for the benefit of other people. These are rare, and are admired for it – including those who are made literal saints, such as Mother Teresa.
Some take it to the extreme level, but most people will do something nice for another fairly often. Helping others gives one a warm, pleasant feeling (most of the time). The act of assisting another person in a task, or helping them do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to accomplish, gives a sense of accomplishment to the assistant too.
And therein lies my discussion point – are those who help others ultimately acting in their own interests? Something that is inherently seen as selfish might be done and enjoyed by one person, but someone else might get similar enjoyment out of helping another person. If these good deeds are performed with the intent of feeling good about them, are they not also a form of selfishness?
Bear in mind, I would label myself as a selfish person. After struggling with social anxiety as a teen, it took me a long time to decide I was worth caring about from my own point of view. I’m now far more sure of my self-worth, and I’m unashamed of putting my own interests before others’.
That’s not to say I never do a nice thing, but I wonder if I’m alone in thinking about how good I’ll feel if I help someone else. I might make my partner a nice meal without being asked, but I am rewarded from that – he is happy, which makes me happy. In that sense, I’m still being selfish while doing something positive for another person.
There is the obvious argument of “if something good is being done for someone else, the intent doesn’t matter”. Regardless of whether one helps an old lady cross a busy street solely for her benefit, or whether the action is partly motivated by the sense of pride one receives afterwards, the action is a good one. In response to that argument, I raise an example from recent years: YouTube or Facebook videos of people donating food or supplies to the homeless.
These videos became prolific through being shared on ‘motivational’ Facebook pages. Watching people help other people is nice. But after a while, comments turned from positive to negative. Viewers accused the video makers of only helping the unfortunate in order to gain views and subsequently money for themselves. It was suggested that they help them without filming; that as they were only donating food so they could share the footage of doing so, the act was insincere.
So that brings us back to the idea that regardless of one’s motives, performing a good deed is a positive thing. But apparently not if one’s motives are to garner views online. Perhaps this example in particular is more exploitative to those who are being helped than simply pursuing a sense of accomplishment, but I believe they have a similar thought process behind them.
Overall, the concept of selfishness seems to differ for each individual situation. Therefore, rather than worry about being selfish, perhaps I’ll decide whether the reactions of those around me are worth going out of my way to avoid. Is that selfish?