And why doing your best to please others won’t

Last autumn, I wrote and published a self-help book and like all good parents, my Dad had a go at reading it. This was a real act of support from someone who doesn’t ever read. Ever. He never quite finished it but he swam through enough treacle to get the gist of it. His verdict? ‘But if someone were to do all the things you advise they would become quite a selfish person’.

Thud. The sound of my best-selling author aspirations hitting the floor.

The thing is, my Dad is right. I am an advocate of selfishness. I believe it’s practically impossible to live a healthy, happy life unless you put yourself first. It’s long been a mystery to me as to why being selfish is synonymous with being ‘bad’. Selfishness is about being uncaring or unfeeling towards others. Instead, I’d argue that it is the expression of recognising what is important to us and prioritising it accordingly.

All too often, the fear of being accused of selfishness gets in the way of doing what makes us happy. For example, you may want to go to the cinema or — if you’re a real rebel — on holiday by yourself. As in, alone, not with family, not with friends, not even with your partner. Yet you do end up going as part of a group because it’s just so much easier. It’s simply not worth the arguing or constant explanations that yes, of course, you care about them and want to spend time with them and no you don’t mean to be selfish but you also value your own company and solitude… So you do the unselfish thing because it makes others happy and fulfils their needs at the expense of your own.

Gotta love irony.

The key word in this example is value and the reason is this — if you choose anything other than your core values, you’ll lose every time. Living for other people — even those you love most — will make you unhappy. Putting yourself first may be selfish but this doesn’t make it ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. It means you’re living consciously, authentically and with integrity.

Being selfish does not mean harming or neglecting others; it means you are able to identify what you need and want to live a happy, meaningful and fulfilling life. Selfishness allows you to follow the career path that fulfils you, which may not be the one your parents wanted for you. It allows you to wear the clothes that reflect who you are without conforming to some generic gender stereotype. It is being with the person who makes you happy, not the person your best friend approves of. Being selfish lets you find the time to exercise, to relax, to spend time however you want, whether that’s out partying every night or going to bed at 8pm. To put it bluntly, selfishness is a pre-requisite for establishing positive change in any area of our lives.

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not saying we should exploit or harm others in order to live however we want. But I am saying that to live a life of meaning and purpose often means disregarding the expectations others have for us. What is right for me is probably not right for you. Doing the thing that is right for us may be considered selfish but it doesn’t make us bad. It means we’re lucky.

Lucky enough to know what we want. What lifts us up and makes our heart sing. Being selfish allows us to express ourselves and live who we are and not what others would like us to be. Being selfish allows us to connect with our deepest values and live with balance. And when we live with energy, vitality and balance, we can share that with others. Selfishness has the power to lead to generosity.

Selfishness in and of itself is not a bad thing — it has the power to reveal what you want and give you the focus to go after it. Happiness ultimately comes when we are following our internal rule book and living according to our values. Being selfish ultimately has the potential to be a force for what is authentic and positive in our lives and can give us the custom-made, personalised roadmap we’re looking for on our journey to being happy and healthy.

Originally published at