The word “selfish” may conjure images of fat cats (i.e., Koch Brothers) just drooling to gobble up the whole world in one giant chomp, or of toddlers unwilling to share their toys with the rest of the bunch in pre-K circles. But there are different angles to selfishness, and the right kind of self-servitude (along with the self-awareness than necessarily comes with it) may be just what we need to feed the hungry, save the environment and stop wars.
First, let’s get the nasty breed of selfishness out of the way. People who step on one another to “make it” to the top, those who steal—even from people poorer than themselves—and those who don’t care if the beings around them are starving so long as they have enough to take care of the needs and whims of themselves and their kin give selfishness an ugly name. But as self-serving as these villains appear, I am going to argue that they don’t act out of true selfishness.
That’s because people are not truly, viscerally rewarded by the mere act of accumulating “stuff,” be it food, money, cars, clothing or private jets. No, people only seem to reach bliss by living more meaningful lives—even if they don’t realize it. In fact, if we were all treasure-hungry, stab-you-in-the-back-for-your-wallet green monsters, we would never have gotten this far in our evolution. We thrive as a cohesive society, and such a culture is only possible with people who look out for others than themselves. It’s in nobody’s best interest to be a lone, hated wolf, however well-fed. Sociopaths, who don’t care about the suffering of others as long as they themselves are taken care of, are the outliers, not the norm. If this were not true, there would be no social welfare, no generosity and no warmth in the human universe.
So I say embrace the selfishness that makes the world a better place. Help your neighbor because it makes you feel better than a new pair of shoes; buy eco-friendly because it makes you feel like you’re making a difference—which you are—and adopt a dog because the act will bring years of better health, pride and comfort. If we all think of our needs beyond our primitive instinct of acquisition and perform the deeds that bring honest, lasting satisfaction, every single one of us will have a better life.