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When Selfishness Turns Into Selflessness

Are people selfish by nature? If so, is there anything we can do about it? A different perspective on selfishness.

Some people believe humans are selfish by nature. According to this theory, everything we do is ultimately motivated by selfishness, even the acts that are classified as ‘selfless’ by society. Before we go any further, let me make a distinction between two different ways of understanding this concept: in everyday speech, ‘being selfish’ has a negative connotation, often meaning to ignore others people’s needs in order to satisfy your own.

However, from a psychological point of view, ‘selfishness’ simply means that, as a species, we are self-centred beings, therefore we find it humanly impossible to ignore the voice of the self. We perceive the world via our senses. No matter how hard we try, we cannot physically become somebody else. Even when we share other people's thoughts or ideas, we still see the world through our own eyes and filter reality through our own emotions.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that even the good things we do for others can be traced back to a deep selfish motivation. We help someone in distress because the sight of suffering causes us physical and psychological discomfort or simply because we prefer to see people happy and smiling. We make charitable acts because it makes us feel good with ourselves or because we want to pay for something we have done in the past. It is a more ‘refined’ form of selfishness and it takes some subtlety to recognize it, but in the end that’s what it is.

Selfishness in this context is not a negative concept. In fact, it is closer to selflessness that we can imagine. It’s just a question of choosing how to use it. We all have a lot to give and a tremendous potential for the good. All we have to do is focus on the positive side of the self and find the things that can make both us and those around us better, happier and stronger. If we train ourselves to rejoice in the good we do, our selfishness becomes our selflessness.

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