The Art of Selfishness

In an era of self-love and self-improvement, how do we find the balance between happiness and success without it becoming an illusion of self-serving behaviour?

To be successful is the ultimate goal instilled in many of us from a young age. Yet how we define success and how we go about the journey to becoming successful is often associated with self-focus, selfishness and sacrifice. More than 90% of psychological research is focussed on why things go wrong, but just because things are going okay, doesn’t mean we are truly flourishing.


From the beginning

In a western society, competitiveness and being self-driven is instilled right from our early years at school. The fastest, smartest and most independently capable child is rewarded above their peers and the brain is then organised in a linear, self-serving direction. However, the science of positive psychology and compassion are proving that a pro-sociality approach to others, reflects directly back to yourself.

“If we trained people to focus more on compassion and being concerned for others in our environments, there is evidence to suggest it has a profound effect on your sense of self,” explains Professor Paul Gilbert, founder of The Compassionate Mind Foundation. Gross over-stimulation both online and in the real world ignores our inner motivational systems; these are care focused and can leave us very vulnerable to depression.

There has been a recent increase in the evidence based approach to happiness as we begin to move away from the expectation of monetary fulfillment. The focus on celebrity lifestyles, materialism and false glamorization stimulates one of the most toxic things to our happiness: social comparison and failure.


Someone to talk to

The rise of life and wellness coaches are a response to the increase of people feeling a loss of control and confusing self-conflicting attitudes. “People come to me because they want to be happier and feel more fulfilled,” says Michael Serwa, London’s leading life coach. Covering topics from relationship advice and confidence issues to general health concerns, the pressure to be successful can be isolating.

On the other hand individualism can feel empowering, but humans by nature are social creatures who naturally gravitate towards communities and like-minded people. Regardless of how social and connected we think we are, online lived personas are resulting in us losing what it truly means to be human. Money may give us more chances to be happier, but we are quickly realising it is not the be all and end all.

“We often think of ourselves as highly independent, but in reality we’re totally dependent on other people,” says Paul. “The food that you eat and the house that you live in are created by other people, the real nature of humanity is based on prosocial behaviour.”


Getting along versus getting ahead

A key focus here is considering long and short term gratitude. “What’s very important about ambition is to be the best that you can, ”explains Paul, “but it’s when your ambition becomes a stepping stone for something else like money, or to make you feel good as a person, that you’re getting into trouble.” Reaching the top of the mountain before anyone else may feel great to begin with, but when you look back down at the people you left behind, some injured as a result of you wanting to get ahead, your feeling of success may not be as fulfilling as you expected.

Vanessa King, board member at Action for Happiness and author of Ten Keys to Happier Living, explains that: “feeling connected, but not having someone to turn to when times are tough is more damaging to our physical health than smoking or obesity.”

All humans have needs around achievement, respect, safety and importance. These needs are often forgotten in the run up to being successful. We’re not the machines we like to boast about being and there are many aspects to success that are overlooked. “I think the most common issue is that people are dissatisfied with how life is for them,” explains Debbie Banks, Human Needs Psychotherapist and life coach, “we’ve been sold this hedonistic treadmill that just doesn’t seem to be working for people.”


Being compassionate

Research has proven that when we do kind things for others, not only does it make them feel great and important, but it comes full circle and has an impact on our own reward centres in our brain. An element of a competitive society is the value placed on ourselves and others; being labelled ‘undesirable’ or ‘inferior’ results in feeling rejected, unwanted and ashamed.

The key to compassion is the ability to truly engage with something. “Our mood states are contagious,” says Vanessa, ”they affect the people you come into contact with, and then that affects the people they’re in contact with – we’re all connected.”

By creating a happier environment to live and work in, not only are you taking care of your own well-being from all angles, but you’re also helping other people achieve their full potential. Happiness, positivity and success are contagious. “We live through a world from our own perceptual reality,” says Debbie, “we think that the external world is creating our problems, but very often it’s an inside out issue.”


Being successful

Visualisation is extremely important on the journey to success. As a muscle, the human brain has the ability to be trained to change it’s direction of thinking, and perform as you so desire just like any other muscle in your body. By focussing on motivation and compassion, instead of competitiveness and rejection, we’re more likely to achieve a higher aim of human existence: happiness.

“We can’t be truly happy in a full sense of the word unless we care about other people and their happiness,” says Vanessa, “we have an impact on each other and we can’t avoid that.” It has been proven that those of us that are happier, are much more likely to be engaged and  productive at work. We’re also less likely to have a heart attack and much more likely to take care of themselves and others, “I believe that unless we are happy, nothing else really matters,” says Michael.

Ultimately, if we improve the relationship with ourselves and with those round us, we’re more likely to be successful. If we change what it means to be successful and focus on our overall well-being, it’s far from selfish. This focus is what benefits society as a whole, in the workplace, at home, our relationships with others and how we help propel them forward. There is a responsibility in looking after ourselves from the inside out.


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