Helping Others While Helping Yourself

by Stephen Mills on October 15, 2009

Helping Others

There is a widespread belief which is promoted by the moralities of duty that pursing your self-interest is somehow incompatible with helping others, general benevolence, and good-will among all human beings.  Many consider it morally superior to sacrifice yourself for others over helping others while helping yourself.  The latter is considered selfish or an inferior way of helping.

There is an implication that pursuing your self-interest means trampling on the interests of others.  That looking out for yourself means disregarding the rights and needs of others. That is a zero-sum game that is complete hogwash.  I reject those beliefs and quite frankly consider them responsible for a lot of psychological harm.  They belong to a less enlightened past and need to be discarded.

One of the best ways you can help others is to to not become a burden on anyone by taking care of yourself.  Your health is a simple example.  I place high value on keeping myself and my family from becoming a burden on the rest of the population and I consider it a virtue.  Going further, I consider it a virtue to live a full, rich, meaningful, and happy life.  That is what it means to be human and to do anything less is to violate your nature and I don’t see how that can be considered good.

None of that means that helping others is not a good thing or something you should strive for because it can be one of the most rewarding activities you can undertake.  It can be a key factor in living a meaningful life.  A wonderful synthesis of both is finding happiness by doing those things that give you pleasure and meaning while at the same time benefiting others.  The benefit can be and often is direct, but it doesn’t have to be.  I have purchased books that have benefited the authors financially and from which I have found profound insights.  Insights  that have benefited me immensely.  They’ve helped me by helping themselves.  My health is a thousand times better than it was a year ago.  The vast majority of the information I used to make the transformation was found on the web or in books I found on the web.  So thanks to the innumerable people who have contributed to the information age.  Many of them have become wealthy in the process.

Research shows that happy people and people who feel good are more likely to help others.  It’s not a trade-off between your own interests and the interests of others.  Relationships that are mutually beneficial rather than mutually sacrificial are the ones that are likely to thrive.  I don’t want to take what someone else has created.  I want to benefit and have others benefit from what I create.

Everyone must pick their own path and I’m not telling you what yours might be.  I am suggesting however that it is wrong to feel guilty about pursing your own self-interest.  The bitter and self-important people who lay a guilt trip on you for being “selfish” for pursuing your own way aren’t helping anyone.  They certainly didn’t help you.

What if everyone took care of themselves to the extent possible while acting in a generally kind and helpful way toward every ones else, including the other creatures of the earth?  What if we treated ourselves and each other as individuals each with a right and a basic need to pursue our own interests without trampling on one another?  What a wonderful world it might be.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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Helping Others While Helping Yourself « Make Lovely
October 19, 2009 at 9:24 pm

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Deb Owen October 15, 2009 at 3:56 pm

I could not agree more. In ‘pursuing our self-interests’, we take care of ourselves and become the best we can be. In stepping up to be our best selves, we are then *better* able to help others.

It’s like the airplane safety presentation. Put your own oxygen mask on and *then* help others, even children. After all, if you aren’t breathing, you aren’t much good to anyone else.

The same can be said of taking care of ourselves, and taking responsibility for ourselves and our lives, so that we are then actually more useful and more able to help others.

Thanks for the great post!
All the best!
deb
.-= Deb Owen´s last blog ..well-behaved women can make history =-.

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Stephen Mills October 18, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Hi Deb and thanks for commenting! I think your analogy to the airplane oxygen masks is beautiful.

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Sheila October 15, 2009 at 6:18 pm

Very timely topic, as this is something I often struggle with … even though I know I deserve my good, I can’t help but feel a kind of guilt for people who aren’t pursuing their happiness.

But, as I’m realizing, if I become successful, it gives me the means to help the people that I feel sorry for, and that is all the more reason to pursue that success.

Thank you for writing this blog.

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Stephen Mills October 18, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Thank you Sheila for stopping in to comment at the trap. You should never feel guilty because it is not a zero sum game. There is abundance for everyone.

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Nea | Self Improvement Saga October 15, 2009 at 10:00 pm

This post has such value. There are so many people who feel guilty about putting self first. So many people feel as though they are doing something wrong if they don’t forsake themselves to reach out to others. It’s quite an interesting way of looking at life. I mean, how on Earth can you benefit others by being a lesser version of yourself.

In the not so distant past, I had a problem saying no to anything. I felt as if it was my duty to help everyone–no matter the consequences for me. Oh the cost I paid for such thinking. With that said, some of us could use a little lesson in selfishness. Selfishness doesn’t have to mean that you don’t help or care for others. For me, it just means that I take the time to take care of self first.

I believe in loving myself and others enough to take the best possible care of me. And when I’m at my best, I’m able to offer so much more to others without feeling drained or overwhelmed.

Amazing post!
.-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog ..What It Really Takes to Achieve the Impossible =-.

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Stephen Mills October 18, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Hello Nea. “…how on Earth can you benefit others by being a lesser version of yourself. ” Exactly. Thanks for commenting.

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ægil October 15, 2009 at 10:45 pm

Here is Vin Miller’s version: http://naturalbias.com/the-virtue-of-selfishness/

Your article and his about this are true instant classics!

You actually need basics (eg food) before you can help someone, or train your intelligence! Selfishness should be at the appropriate places!

Helping others is concretely a self interest by the way, we just don’t realize it. In the end, will your self interest benefit the world or not? We must learn to say yes or no with a reason.

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Stephen Mills October 18, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Hi ægil. Thanks for linking in Vin’s blog article. I read his blog but somehow I missed that one.

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Gordie Rogers October 15, 2009 at 11:30 pm

I feel that if my health became so bad and couldn’t get better, then I’d want to end it. What a horrible way to end life, knowing that you’re a burden on others and that your pain causes them pain.
.-= Gordie Rogers´s last blog ..Is There Anything That’s Unforgivable? Part 1. =-.

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Stephen Mills October 18, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Hi Gordie. I love the attitude about becoming a burden on others. Of course sometimes it cannot be helped and if the world is full of self-reliant people then of course nobody cares and our general benevolence will take care of others. However, given so many people are holding their undeserving hands out, I think many are becoming weary of trying to determine the difference.

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Lisis | Quest For Balance October 16, 2009 at 5:49 am

This reminds me of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness. I definitely think we should take great care of ourselves in order to avoid being a burden on others and have the most to give to those around us. But that’s relatively easy to do. I often find that people use the Virtue of Selfishness argument to indulge in being completely narcissistic and self-centered.

If you can care for yourself AND care for others, then you’ve found a lovely balance. If you can’t find it in you (and I don’t mean YOU, Stephen) to be of service, then at least do no harm.
.-= Lisis | Quest For Balance´s last blog ..Jackie and Heidi: A Tale of Unlikely Companions =-.

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Stephen Mills October 18, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Hi Lisis! I’m not sure I agree with this, or at least a huge percentage off the people seem to have difficulty with it:

“But that’s relatively easy to do.”

It seems like there are an awful lot of people who can’t take care of themselves and are a burden on others. The percentage of the population who for instance are taking some form of government payment is pretty big and that’s just one small measure of burden. What about all the people who are burdens on their own family, etc. When you go to a hospital emergency room without health care you are a burden on others. So if it’s easy, a whole lot of people aren’t doing the easy thing.

“I often find that people use the Virtue of Selfishness argument to indulge in being completely narcissistic and self-centered.”

Maybe so, but I don’t. Most narcissistic and self-centered people I know aren’t evolved enough to even know the argument. Some of them who are and are the most narcissistic people I’ve encountered, wouldn’t be caught dead using the argument. They are the self-centered saviors of the rest of us running all over the country (and the world too) telling everyone about how they plan to do it.

Why the other day I heard one of them on T.V. say “I wish I could just write a check (using other people’s money of course)”. :-)

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Ian | Quantum Learning October 16, 2009 at 8:21 am

I fully agree with you. In fact I think everything we do has self interest behind it – though we’re often not aware. Whenever I’ve looked behind something altruistic I’ve done with no thought of self interest – I always find some self interest. It makes me feel good. It’s done out of fear of looking bad in front of others. It’s because I want to be noticed. It can be many things, but that self interest is always there.

I would go even further and say that the beliefs you are calling ‘hogwash’ kill people. Lots of them. How else could we convince the fittest and healthiest young men to go off to war and kill and be killed? We’ve been brainwashed for hundreds of years that the ultimate sacrifice – the ultimate act of non-selfishness is to kill and die in the name of our country (or religion, or cause or whatever).

The sign of how dangerously deep this is engrained? Try criticising those who chose to join the army and go off to kill/die – and see what reaction you get. I guarantee it will not be pretty.
.-= Ian | Quantum Learning´s last blog ..Book Review: Inner Productivity =-.

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Stephen Mills October 18, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Hi Ian. I originally was going to say “evil” instead of hogwash but I toned it down. I agree that when we do something we usually do it to feel good or because we think it will make us feel good. And after all that is my point. What is wrong with that?

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Ian | Quantum Learning October 20, 2009 at 9:16 am

Stephen .. nothing wrong with that at all! I think we all yearn to feel good and to have others feel good too. I’m happy you stuck with ‘hogwash’ – there’s something very evocative about that word. :-)
.-= Ian | Quantum Learning´s last blog ..A World Where Conflicts Are Solved Peacefully =-.

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alex - unleash reality October 16, 2009 at 9:34 am

hey stephen!

really really liked this won :)

so true that there’s an overall feeling that you can’t help others and still live a good life.

i think that living fully and igniting your inner glory IS helping others.
on a practical tip, the effects of whatever you’re doing and the remuneration you gain practically effects others… but on a more hippy tip, we’re all connected and being constructive and improving your life and being about progress helps everybody. hippy as that sounds :)

either way, NOT living for you and making the life you want brings others down, so just NOT living like that is helping others :)

haha.

hope all’s well mate
a

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Vin - NaturalBias October 16, 2009 at 2:00 pm

As Ayn Rand would say, selfishness is a virtue! :) Great article, Stephen! As I’m sure you know, I love how you used your health improvements as an example.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..12 Reasons Why Saturated Fat is Good for You =-.

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BunnygotBlog October 16, 2009 at 6:34 pm

I have read down through the comments. I could not agree more with the lot who have stated that much of what we do for others is rewarded with those warm fuzzy inter feelings of joy for helping someone out ~ making someone happy ~ even making someone laugh.
I often say I surround myself with happy people. No they are on fairy dust they do have the normal ups and downs everyone has but they don’t seem to dwell on it.
They find a way to move on with taking something away from the experience they don’t have the power to change but start over.
People need each other and they need to be good to each other.
.-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..Healing A Country: Where It Starts =-.

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Davina Dean October 16, 2009 at 6:52 pm

I have been thinking along similar lines recently: Our local church takes great pride in handing out food parcels and knitted blankets.

The folk that are forced to accept them must feel terrible, but need the help, so have no choice.

Surely a co-operative solution would be better; where people are in a situation to help themselves and not have to be thankful to the local church (which really means thankful to god).

If you keep a whole portion of society ‘down’ you can always feel superior about yourself and keep in the position of being able to give charity…….

Let’s empower ourselves and be an example to others……

Great blog Stephen…..

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Karlil October 16, 2009 at 7:24 pm

I can’t agree more Stephen. Helping others doesn’t always have to be sacrificing your interest, though that can be the case at times. Great article.
.-= Karlil´s last blog ..Finding The Courage To Act: The Happy Idiots =-.

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Crafters100 October 17, 2009 at 9:01 am

Doing for others at the expense of ourselves is a form emotional dissociation…never a good thing.

Keep up the good work.
.-= Crafters100´s last blog ..20 years =-.

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Miche - Serenity Hacker October 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Hi Stephen, you’ve made some really great points here. I was just having a conversation about self-sacrifice with a friend the other day, and how it’s really not the way. When you self-sacrfice, no one really ever appreciates it. And, you’re creating an indebtedness that no one can ever repay you, because they can’t replace the self you’ve given away.
.-= Miche – Serenity Hacker´s last blog ..There Is No Such Thing As Stuck =-.

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Robin Easton October 17, 2009 at 4:12 pm

This is REALLY good Stephen and something that I totally believe in. Not sure where the old thinking comes from that we must totally lose ourselves and put everyone and everything before us.

If we don’t nourish ourselves in EVERY sense of the word, by resting when we need to, by pulling back and not answering the phone or door, or by making sure we take time to live our dreams, or by making sure we are financially stable before giving, or, or, or…. we end up being no good to anyone. I have found with myself and others that if we do look after ourselves that giving comes naturally…and in balance (stress on the BALANCE part).

Also, another aspect of this: I once knew a woman who gave everything to everyone and NEVER did anything for herself, until one day it hit me that she COULDN’T give to herself. When I questioned her about it she said, “Oh, I’m just not deserving.” I found that horribly intense negative energy to be around. However I did NOT judge her. BUT I did ask her how she would feel if she were to give to herself in the way she gave to others. She said the thought scared her. If she could give to others she didn’t have to face how horrible she felt about herself. And I think it’s healthy that giving makes us feel good inside, but I also think there are cases, like this woman, where the person uses excessive giving to run from themselves, even to the point of dealing with their own life.

I know this must sound an odd insight, but for some reason reading this made me think of what I learned from her.

I think we can all find that balance of looking after ourselves and giving.

Thoughtful post. It dispels old beliefs that our culture has fostered through religion and many other areas of our culture.
.-= Robin Easton´s last blog ..Five Perspectives on Death =-.

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Chris Edgar October 17, 2009 at 11:21 pm

My friend recently gave me a great quote about this: “the best thing you can do for others is to work on yourself.” And I think this is true — the more we help ourselves, the more we have the capacity and desire to help others.

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Derrick October 18, 2009 at 7:10 am

By living out your life as it occurs instinctually,without being judgemental or following learned behaviors from the past. There is no need to sacrifice or be selfish. Our constant thoughts of both past and future prevents the world from being that wonderful place where humanity is #1. Cherish opinions of others while you dance the dance of life the best you know how.

Derrick

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kyle October 19, 2009 at 11:45 am

while i fully agree with the technical aspect of your idea – and adhere to it myself , there is just something about your presentation and some of the comments that seem much more like simple selfishness – as though you have just given a beautiful excuse as to why it is ok to not care about anyone else. I recognize those are in no way your words – but words can be and are manipulated – the idea that stands out is very much : only care for yourself.

your advice is valuable to some people. but i know many more people that sacrifice others for their own sake, rather than the reverse …. and to think that it is ok because they are somehow allowing themselves to be better able to help others , is absurd.

the majority of people do not over-extend or sacrifice themselves for others. only a small percentage would gain true benefit from your writing, the rest will feel better about themselves for being selfish and uncaring.

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Stephen Mills October 19, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Hi Kyle. You didn’t point to anything specific which makes it rather hard to respond to your comments. So I will respond by pointing out something contained in my first sentence and then scattered through the entire article:

“…somehow incompatible with helping others, general benevolence, and good-will among all human beings.”

or

“…because it can be one of the most rewarding activities you can undertake. It can be a key factor in living a meaningful life. A wonderful synthesis of both is finding happiness by doing those things that give you pleasure and meaning while at the same time benefiting others. ”

or

“What if everyone took care of themselves to the extent possible while acting in a generally kind and helpful way toward every ones else, including the other creatures of the earth?”

I don’t know if you know the meaning of those words, but how you got “only care for yourself” is beyond me.

“but i know many more people that sacrifice others for their own sake, rather than the reverse …. and to think that it is ok because they are somehow allowing themselves to be better able to help others , is absurd.”

Now I can directly respond to that. You are right. To say it is ok to sacrifice others for your own sake is absurd. So please point out anywhere I said or even implied that sacrificing others for your own sake was ok? That is totally false and in fact I said in multiple places you have no right to trample on others. I consider that a complete evil. I called it hogwash.

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Guillaume Besson October 21, 2009 at 8:47 am

HI Stephen,

Your post is spot-on and very related to what I do at the moment.

I am working on a website where we can all help each other for free. http://www.karmawish.com

Basically you help someone first, by doing so you earn a credit. You can then post your wish and be helped by anyone else in the world.

Have a look. It’s the same spirit as couchsurfing except it’s for everything: need a window changed, need a translation, need someone to look after your cat etc etc… :-) All for free as long as you help too!

Let me know if you like the idea.

Thanks

Guillaume

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