How selfish is it OK to be in life?
April 23, 2015 12:48 PM   Subscribe

I struggle with thinking I "should" do a lot of things, and feel guilty about not doing more for charity and for other people. How can I find a good balance between doing what I want to do for myself, and doing my duty as a good person?
posted by sninctown to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
If you get a big dartboard, you can label each section either "SELF" or "DUTY TO OTHERS"; then, when you have a decision to make that you feel puts these two in conflict, you stand like ten feet back and throw a dart at it, and follow whichever space it landed on.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:59 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Peter Singer's essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" (PDF) is about the moral obligation to help people if it doesn't degrade our own lives. He also has a new book, called "The Most Good You Can Do," expanding on these concepts, though I haven't read it.

He did an Ask Me Anything on Reddit last week, and series of questions in line with yours was asked:

Singer: "Yes, effective altruists will consume less than typical Americans, or people in other affluent societies. They will get their excitement in other ways that don't cost a heap, or use a lot of fossil fuel. But we don't claim to be saints, so we aren't going around wearing sackcloth either. "

Singer again: "Look, in theory, we EAs ought to all be wearing sackcloth, except that that would ensure that there were very few of us. We want more people to join us, and doing absolutely everything that, in theory, we ought to do is not the best way to achieve that."

There are a lot of other interesting answers (especially if you've read Singer before), and you should check out the AMA.

Essentially, though, you should do as much good as you can, and always strive to do more, because you will basically never be doing enough. You could think this is disheartening, but I choose to think the opposite - just give yourself positive reinforcement for what good you do, and don't sweat an expensive pair of shoes every now and then. You're doing more than nothing, and that's more than lots of people.
posted by papayaninja at 1:00 PM on April 23, 2015 [24 favorites]

Is your existence in the world net positive or negative? At the absolute worst you should aim for net neutral. Don't let your needs/wants/whims make anyone else's world worse.

If "selfish" is translating to acting like an entitled bag of dicks to people you meet, you should reevaluate your priorities. If "selfish" is more along the lines of not wanting to have kids because you like your money and your freedom better, well, that's another thing. That really doesn't affect anyone but you.

If you feel like you "should" do things, what's keeping you from doing them? If you'd like a way to get involved with something to try to move your needle toward net positive, find one thing that makes you happy. For me that's Girl Scouts. I love my troop. For you I don't know, maybe it's fostering diabetic kittens or something. Giving back doesn't mean you have to put yourself in situations that make you uncomfortable. It means you're doing something that impacts the world in a positive way, even if it's small.
posted by phunniemee at 1:03 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you don't take care of yourself, you'll become a burden to other people. So take care of yourself first, physically, mentally, emotionally. Be conscious not to harm other people in your quest to take care of yourself.

If you have extra resources, help other people. Most people are able to help others a little bit even after taking care of themselves.

If most people take care of themselves and help others a little, we'd be in a very, very good society.

Keep in mind that it's also ok to let other people help you. Some things are easier for some people to do than others, and that's ok.
posted by ethidda at 1:04 PM on April 23, 2015 [8 favorites]

Remember that small gestures e.g. Holding the door open for someone, saying thank you and smiling at random people, can go a long way!
posted by JenThePro at 1:07 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

How can I find a good balance between doing what I want to do for myself, and doing my duty as a good person?

I don't like that framing. It is rooted in a mental model of sacrifice and in the idea that it must cost you something and you have to give until it hurts in order to be "good." I really strongly dislike that concept. I have spent a lot of years trying to find a different way to frame such questions.

I think being a good person should be beneficial to you. If you are honest and have a positive reputation and so on, that should benefit you. If you feel like you aren't getting your needs met and you feel simply obligated to dutifully do certain things, I think you should rethink your entire relationship here to what it means to be a good person.

I really dislike the idea that "good people" all have to be masochistic martyrs who get nothing back for doing good for other people. You might try reading books like "Doing well while doing good."

I think you will do far more good in the world if you find a way to reframe your relationship to this idea. Solving certain problems out in the world makes the world a better place, and that means you get to live in a better place. But that doesn't mean you should martyr yourself in the process.

My dad was career army and so was my ex-husband. I am very familiar with the fact that sometimes someone does need to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. But I don't think that should be the only concept we have of a good person. Career soldiers also get a lot of benefits for holding up their right hand and swearing to give their lives to their country and, if necessary, for their country. They don't all die on the field of battle. You get people to be willing to make that sacrifice because the ones who do come back alive get good medical and retirement benefits and other benefits. The army is certainly not a situation where you just suffer and suffer and get nothing in return. I mentally compare that to other mental models of goodness in the world and I feel some of our mental models of goodness are seriously broken.

So please rethink what it means to be a good person in a way where you don't feel that it basically pains you to be good. I don't think that's a healthy model.
posted by Michele in California at 1:37 PM on April 23, 2015 [17 favorites]

Personally, I feel like the reason we are put on this planet is to help others, and that we should all do as much as we possibly can to achieve this. Some people may not be able to give much to charity (I am included in this) but can give time volunteering. Some people may not have the energy to volunteer because of physical or mental health constraints, but may be able to take part in online activism. I think there's a difference between 'I want to volunteer but don't have time because I'm working two part time jobs to get through college' and 'I feel like I should volunteer but I'd rather go out partying'. I totally agree with Michele in California that the benefits of living in this way are huge for the person doing it as well as those on the receiving end - I think if it feels like a chore, you're doing it wrong. Find a cause that you believe in and you won't be able to stop :-)
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 1:41 PM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I will second the Peter Singer suggestion. I would suggest especially using the Impact Calculator on his website for a look at the good you can do for relatively small sums.

In short, consider donating annually between 1% - 5% of your gross yearly income to effective charities. If you make more that $100,000 per year, consider donating much more (10% or higher) of your gross income. If you make very little, give what you can spare (and if you've had anything to drink besides tap water in the last six months, you can spare something), and try to give more next year.
posted by Gin and Comics at 1:46 PM on April 23, 2015

If everyone around you donated one day a year to volunteering, I imagine the world would be at least a marginally better place. I do work for two advocay groups, and the people who come out to volunteer one day every year just for the Spring Fair or just to run the help desk at Conference make a huge, appreciable difference in terms of our ability to hold those absolutely vital fundraising events.

So what I'm saying is that you can do good pretty easily. You can see it as a duty if you wish to, but it needn't be a burden.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:09 PM on April 23, 2015

Making yourself happy counts as adding happiness to the world, and is probably the easiest way to go. You know you better than anyone and have the easiest access to you. Your happiness is equal to anyone else's happiness and probably easier to achieve. So make yourself happy first 9/10 times. It's the Occam's Razor principle of happiness.

In general, the greater the number of people you piss off by following your bliss, the more you want to consider giving in to "duty." If your bliss involves direct consequential harm to someone else, don't do it.

But if it's you and one other person, pick you first. Put on your own oxygen mask.
posted by quincunx at 2:18 PM on April 23, 2015

This isn't a complete answer, but basically when I start fantasizing about calling in sick to my volunteer gig when I'm not actually sick, I know it's time to take a break or find a new thing. If I run myself ragged, it means I end up not doing my job as well (and I'm lucky in that my job is something that makes lives better), and I'm crankier in general.

So, if what you're giving is time, check in with yourself periodically, and feel free to take a break to refresh yourself now and then.
posted by ktkt at 2:30 PM on April 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Try this and it's easy. Do something for someone else every day. It doesn't have to be huge. Smile at someone who looks troubled. Go out of your way to help with a door. Pretty soon it becomes a habit and you will find more and more ways to "not be selfish". Easy
posted by BarcelonaRed at 3:47 PM on April 23, 2015

Please re-read what Michele In California wrote. Someone I respect deeply told us when we were training for our volunteer work, "It isn't service unless both people are being served." People used to say oooh aaaah you're such a good person for your volunteer work, but that's not true. You get more than you give, and if you don't, you're doing the wrong volunteer work. If you don't love it, find something that you do love.

Remember this story? Howard Thurman was asked by a mentee what he should do with his life, what does the world need most? There are so many needs and no way to know what to commit to? Thurman said, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

Come alive.
posted by janey47 at 6:04 PM on April 23, 2015 [15 favorites]

It's fine to be a little selfish and actually kind of healthy. Sometimes you have to put yourself at the top. As the sailors say, "The ship comes first." (You are the ship... always make sure it's well taken care of!)

Horribly selfish and grasping? Not so fine. Not the way to build a decent posse.

Personally, I get a real charge out of helping people and sharing. Sometimes with work, sometimes with money or stuff. Sometimes with time. Creativity. Always with friendship, and almost never with reward in mind, other than doing something nice. Accomplishing feels good.

In the last 5 years or so, I've been making sure to do something nice (not just flowers!) for my neighbors and friends. Visiting. Making sure to keep in touch. Fixing something, looking after them, building them something they can't build, filling in the void of no 'fix it' mate, taking care of kids during illness, etc.

The rewards of that are that it builds a community. Good for the heart. Makes us all reciprocate. Makes this world a team effort, not a lonely battle.
posted by FauxScot at 7:23 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you suffer from the feeling that you are not contributing enough, there is a good chance that at some point in your life whatever you did and whatever you gave was never enough to make someone happy. This is completely irrespective of how much you are contributing. This anxiety and the guilt that is associated with it comes from being under the thumb of someone who was impossible to please, or from being in situations where you had to over-function, such as if you had to run a household at too young an age, or were expected to excel in school despite having learning disabilities.

You don't mention how much you contribute. You mention your feeling that you are not contributing enough. You could have this feeling if you were contributing every iota of time and energy and money you could scrape up while suffering from tremendous burn out, or suffer from this feeling if you contribute nothing whatsoever and have withdrawn as much as you can because it all seems so hopeless.

If you were truly selfish your question would be, "How can I get my fair share!"

So I am going to turn this completely around and suggest that the question you need to ask is, "Am I taking sufficient care of myself?"

Here's the thing, if you are an introvert who gets over-stimulated easily and suffers a wee bit of social anxiety, if you go out and start volunteering at a soup kitchen that shuttles 400 people through in a two hour span of time you will finish your volunteer session exhausted, over-whelmed and feeling a deep aversion for other people. And you will end up feeling guilty, because you should be feeling a deep sense of satisfaction not a sense of revulsion for the human race and people who frequent soup kitchens in particular. And it was only two hours of volunteer work - Two measly little hours and yet you don't want to go back!

So I suggest that you get a bit more information. Do some research and find out what the average amounts donated by a person of your demographic is. Say that married men with two children with a household income of $45,000 per annum contribute an average of $370 per year and volunteer two hours per week at some activity related to their church or their children.

Then you will have a realistic bench mark of a standard to meet.

Now I do not suggest that you try to contribute just that much and no more. The world is a needy place and there is plenty that you can contribute.

The next thing I would do is to look at your own talents and abilities and income and figure out where you could contribute the most. If social anxiety prevents you from helping out serving at the soup kitchen you might be able to contribute a great deal more with less wear and tear on your psyche if you volunteer to be the person who picks up and delivers cases of donated food at the time the soup kitchen is closed, or does the bookkeeping, or designs the marketing materials for the Appeal Campaign. You might make the most difference if you convinced five friends to call City Hall to complain that your municipality is not doing enough to help the homeless.

Particularly dangerous is the feeling that you are not doing enough for other people. That is because pretty much everyone is going to the dogs in their own way, and the idea that you should do more for certain individuals in your life can mean that you are being sucked into a black hole of interdependency. When it comes to compassion you often will fail if you measure yourself by a standard of fixing a problem. You cannot stop alcoholics from being alcoholics, you cannot stop the enfeeblement of the aged, and it is not too likely that you are the one person who can find the cure for both cancer and Human Nature.

But you can research what the people in your community need the most, and you can plan ways to focus your effort so that it makes the most impact.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:06 AM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

There's a difference between being centered and being selfish.

Understanding that you can say no means you are centered.

If you always do things for others and never for you, you are not centered.

If all you ever do for others is be a respectful person, then you're doing great. Even when people piss you off, you can still be respectful and own your boundaries. (plenty of askmes on that!)

You don't have to volunteer at the shelter or knit hats for penguins to be considered "unselfish".
posted by sio42 at 9:09 AM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Personally I derive a lot of satisfaction from predicting what another person is about to need. The example often given is opening a door for a stranger, which means you noticed the person coming and realized they were heading for that door.

I try to expand this mindset to other situations, like noticing someone drip something when their hands are already full. It's pretty easy to fill in the gap and see that they might appreciate someone stepping in to pick up what they dropped.

If your job commonly requires a set series of tasks or movements, that might be a good place to predict a coworker needing a hand. If you know your officemate is about to need a stapler, and you see that hers has gone missing, and you hand yours over before being asked, she'll think you're an angel.

Situational awareness of others is a pretty easy habit to pick up, requires no big commitment of time, money, or brainpower, and could give you that "having helped" feeling immediately. And you would have done a legitimately nice thing for a fellow human.
posted by jessicapierce at 7:09 PM on April 24, 2015

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