Being selfish, especially in a pandemic, might not ultimately serve you. Shelves at Target sit empty in Arlington, Virginia, as people stockpile supplies due to the Covid-19 outbreak, March 13, 2020.
By Allison Hope, CNN
(CNN) – At dinnertime, you nab the best-looking pork chop for yourself from the family-style platter. When it’s time to watch TV, you snatch the remote control before anyone else can get to it. Or maybe you take the last bit of hand sanitizer from the store shelf with little regard for whether others feel deep-seated anxiety about the coronavirus or need any themselves.
You don’t mean to be rude or pig-headed. You’re just a little selfish. So what? Aren’t we all self-serving?
Selfishness may be in our biology
No matter what your habits — never mind your intentions — most of us are inherently selfish beings. Some even argue that we are hard-wired to be selfish.
British evolutionary biology and ethologist Richard Dawkins, building on Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory from the early 1800s, dubbed “the selfish gene,” otherwise known as that thing mothers have been telling their teenagers ad nauseam — humans are selfish! The theory posited that those of us who looked after ourselves first before others were more likely to survive, according to a paper by evolutionary biologist and author J. Arvid Ågren of Uppsala University in Sweden.
“Looking deep into our most primitive selves, there is a deep-seated need to survive,” said Dr. Cecily D. Havert, a physician at Northern Virginia Family Practice Associates in Alexandria, Virginia. “This need, when you strip it down to its simplest parts, is based on fear and the need to feel in control of our surroundings and resources,” she said.
We do what we need to in order to survive. That doesn’t, though, mean that our selfish actions are always justified.
Selfishness has consequences
Swooping in on that juicy pork chop or the last bit of hand sanitizer might satisfy your self-serving nature, but these choices have an impact on others, including those you claim to care about the most.
Selfishness comes from a “scarcity mentality, which usually fuels a constant drive to get more and have more and to give away less,” said Dr. Mark Goulston, a Boston-based psychiatrist, author and podcaster, who wrote the book, “Get Out of Your Own Way,” an apt title for those of us looking to be less selfish. “That practice can cause people to lose trust in you and lead to “their frustration, resentment and disappointment,” he said.
There is no benefit to being truly selfish, said Sharie Stines, a California-based psychologist, author and life coach, who believes that the selfish behaviors we see in most people today come from false notions of what happiness means in a culture that tells us at every turn that we must seek the ultimate happiness.
People who are content, who are grateful for all that they have and don’t seek more, tend to be less selfish than those who are discontent. “When people are discontent(ed) they tend to become more self-concerned, which in turn, becomes self-centeredness, thus leading to selfishness,” Stines said. “I have often noticed that relationships are ruined because of one selfish person.”
Thinking of yourself first has the potential to not only hurt those you love most, but can also have negative impacts on broader society (that gas-guzzling SUV will also contribute to the destruction of the planet your grandchildren and mine will inherit).
Our actions impact others, this we know. And our actions are the manifestation of our thoughts, which can be selfish or selfless in nature. Sometimes it really is that simple.
What’s more, a selfish mentality doesn’t really work in today’s global society, where we really must think of the larger whole and community when we make decisions if we are to survive, Havert said. “Being selfish and looking inward about one’s individual survival does not really work in this context,” she said.
We have a choice in the matter
Despite what some say about the inherent nature of selfishness, there is some evidence that humans are perfectly capable of acts of selflessness and altruism that do not chip away at their evolutionary ability to outlive others. In fact, being selfish may even prevent you from getting ahead, according to a 2020 study by University of California, Berkeley, researchers.
We can choose to be selfless just as we can choose to be selfish. We can serve our significant other the best pork chop on the platter. It is possible. We do not lose anything by committing these acts of consideration, of selflessness.
In fact, acts of selflessness can actually make us feel better, not to mention, more upstanding global citizens. When people chose to give their money away rather than keep it, they reported being happier, according to a 2017 University of Zurich study.
How to embrace selflessness
To break the line of selfish thinking, simple acts to refocus attention onto someone else can help.
“People don’t do what’s important to them. They do what they care enough about. Therefore, you need to care enough about being less selfish to make the effort to be that way,” Goulston said. Acts of selflessness can be as simple, he said, as handing out a healthy snack to a homeless person or asking someone else what makes them smile.
Acknowledging what we have is an important step to becoming less selfish, according to Stines. “We are most content when we focus on the other person and find ways to make their life better for us being in it,” she said.
The practice of “getting outside of yourself” also helps, Stines said. That means actively listening when you are talking to someone and performing acts of service to make their life easier or more comfortable.
“Rather than making the search for happiness your priority, make your priority other people’s happiness,” she said.
In a nutshell
All selfishness isn’t created equal. There are, of course, varying degrees of prioritizing self over others. Taking the best-looking pork chop at family dinner isn’t in the same class as say, taking the last remaining shopping cart from an old lady or trampling someone’s dahlias to get your stray soccer ball. And those acts of selfishness are not nearly as bad as cheating on your significant other, lying to get votes, or instituting martial law to seize what you want.
There is also a distinction between selfishness and self-protection. “Self-protection, self-care, and personal boundaries are all meant to protect the self and also the other person,” Stines said.
Maybe it’s even OK to be a little bit selfish sometimes — particularly if you fall on other end of the spectrum and default to putting others before yourself with acts of extreme selflessness.
Go ahead, you have permission to unabashedly polish off the pint of sherbet in the freezer this one time.