It’s Okay To Be Selfish

Being selfish in the right way allows people to be healthier, more successful, and better contribute to society.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Zihe Huang

Selfishness is a vice and yet one of the most constant human motivators. It can be a plague to society when people have no regard for others or fail to feel remorse. But, it also drives society forward. Everyone preaches generosity and kindness, but constantly prioritizing others is exhausting. Selfishness is a trait, not a defining factor, that can aid progress and survival. In the process of teaching children to be selfless, society emphasizes the importance of self-sacrifice over self-care, but sometimes, selfishness is necessary to improve a person’s life. 

Many philosophical beliefs claim that humans are innately selfish, and as a result, religious and social teachings aim to suppress selfish desires. Christianity uses the Seven Deadly Sins to teach that selfishness can damage one’s relationship with God, and Islam says the human predisposition to selfishness is a test, depicting selfishness as a trait to overcome and admonish. It’s repeatedly ingrained into people’s brains to put others before themselves, because selfishness has a negative connotation and is associated with the belief that any action someone takes for themselves is selfish. 

However, self-preservation and selfishness are human instincts and survival skills. In emergencies, people push past crowds and break loyalties to save themselves. In one way or another, any decision that increases one’s chance for survival is selfish. The Illinois Wesleyan University studied the survival of organisms by comparing the actions of honeybees sacrificing themselves to preserve their genes in the queen bee to humans, who provide money for the poor to feel a sense of self-fulfillment. They concluded that no action that contributes to the survival of an individual or species is completely altruistic. Natural selection, the process by which nature chooses which organisms live, would not allow purely altruistic behavior to survive; a human would not sacrifice their happiness or livelihood for others because it would lead to their death. 

While society calls people who sacrifice themselves for others selfless and brave, on crashing planes, people are told to be selfish. People are instructed to put on their own oxygen masks and ensure their safety before helping others. Society turns a blind eye to selfishness when it comes to life-or-death situations but doesn’t realize that exhibiting a degree of selfishness in life is healthy. In daily life, healthy selfishness can be a form of self-care that allows people to regain health, find their identities, and build stronger relationships. When people serve themselves, they set boundaries, refuse requests, and improve their mental health, which allows people to be more effectively selfless. While it may sound like a contradiction, without taking care of themselves, people can’t effectively care for others. 

The problem is that society has taken the idea of selfishness to an extreme, which results in people being hesitant to benefit themselves in fear of being called selfish. Oxford Dictionary defines selfishness as being chiefly concerned with oneself over others, but the broad definition doesn’t capture the complexities of selfishness, therefore leading to the extreme negative association and the overuse of the word. People call women like actress Jennifer Aniston selfish for not having children and focusing on their careers, and artists are labeled as selfish for choosing love over their fan’s feelings. However, students, celebrities, and adults have to act with a certain amount of selfishness in order to achieve their goals and maintain their well-being. 

Teenagers are especially self-aware when it comes to the degree of selfishness in their actions due to social hierarchies and popularity contests in schools. To maintain popularity and avoid rumors, students overthink decisions and are afraid to take the initiative. Students continuously sacrifice their passions in fear of being too selfish and therefore abandon self-advocacy and academic success. Students may turn down academic and professional opportunities, and they may neglect their own needs to care for their friends, but taking opportunities, prioritizing one’s future, and even removing people from one’s life are sometimes necessary. Society equates selfishness with narcissism, causing people to be doubtful of their abilities and choices. 

In both adolescence and adulthood, selfishness can allow for better cooperation and improved results. Harvard Business Review encourages selfishness for people in leadership positions because being selfish benefits the people around the leader as well as the individual. Taking the time to remove negativity from one’s life, setting boundaries, and nurturing a positive mindset can be considered selfish. But a healthy, effective, and confident leader can achieve better cooperation and create a healthier environment. Similarly, artists and writers often need to be selfish and immerse themselves in their work in order to produce meaningful and personal results. Whether it’s education, a project, or a job, doing something for oneself can achieve more satisfying and successful outcomes than doing something strictly for other people. 

Furthermore, the term “selfish” has been used with an extremely negative connotation regarding minorities fighting for their equal rights. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are too often called “selfish” for coming out to their families. Transgender actor Elliot Page said that he had to be “selfish” to come out to the public. However, the belief that telling one’s sexual or gender identity is selfish is the issue. Coming out may or may not be vital to accepting one’s identity, but the purpose of revealing sexual or gender orientation is for one’s own well-being, not for the reaction or benefit of others. And yet, transgender people are constantly called selfish for wanting to medically transition to better fit their identities, and transgender athletes, such as swimmer Lia Thomas, were called selfish for dominating women’s sports.

The importance of being selfish is to be selfish in a healthy way, acknowledging when one’s actions are actively harming others while still maintaining self-care. While it’s unacceptable to constantly step on other people to climb the social or academic ladder, removing the fear of being labeled “selfish” can allow students to be healthier, avoid burnout, and keep a positive and energetic attitude. In daily life, people need to stop worrying about whether self-defense, taking the initiative, or offending problematic people is selfish because being selfish and putting oneself before others isn’t always harmful.

First, society needs to reconsider the definition of selfishness and realize that the degree and severity of selfish actions varies from action to action and from person to person. Immediately associating the word with narcissistic or egotistical behavior can result in more self-doubt, and people must differentiate between self-seeking behavior and self-respect. Society divides human actions into distinct, dichotomous categories: selfish and selfless. However, people don’t fit into one category or the other because the two categories are on the extreme ends of a messy and complicated spectrum. 

The world isn’t black and white, so there should exist a balance between selfishness and selflessness. Labeling every action others take for themselves as selfishness and promoting altruism can detract from one’s ability to care for themself. Certain situations require people to be selfish to preserve their identities and emotional and physical wellbeing and better contribute to society. Selfishness doesn’t make a person a jerk or coldhearted, and using the word selfish to define all self-caring and self-benefiting behaviors can be detrimental.