Thursday, February 18, 2010

What is Selfishness?

Before I get into what selfishness is I want to briefly answer - why is it important to know what is selfishness and what is not?
The reason is that selfishness is a fundamental principle - whom are you live for - for yourself or for others, and what does it even mean to live for yourself? The answer to these questions can determine the course of your life, the kind of actions you take and the emotional reward you ultimately receive from your life.
Secondly, selfishness is an ethical issue. If one misidentifies what selfishness is, one can experience unearned guilt or live a life which is not as good as one could have.

The common notion of selfishness is that of a person who lacks any concern for the values of others, someone who does not value other people, does not value fairness, justice, or does not see the need to return a value for a value. It is someone who always wants to get "favors" but at the same time cannot see why anyone would bother them asking for something in return. They can think of no good reason why they should not be served by others, for no benefit to those others whatsoever. Someone who exploits others at the blink of an eye and can care for nothing but their own ends.
This view of 'selfishnes' is lamped together with any kind of behavior that puts one's own pleasure before the pleasure of others, creating a devastating "package deal".

The person who kills and steals and the person who produces and earns are considered as having the same moral quality, since they both do it to promote their own ends.

Is it any wonder, then, that people condemn selfishness - and is it any wonder that so many people feel guilty for any kind of happiness or enjoyment they pursue for themselves, not for others?

The fault here is in the basic understanding of what selfishness is, and in replacing "lack of value for human life" with "selfishness".

One of Ayn Rand's greatest achievements was her identification of the true meaning of "selfishness". It redeemed morality, it created the basis on which people could be happy. It identified a concept which allows men to experience a moral sense of life, to be the hero of their own movie and at the same time pursue their own life and happiness. It allowed men to stand proud beside their achievements instead of apologizing for them - it allowed men to have self-esteem and to regard themselves as worthy of pleasure.

So let us start with basic questions and get deeper into the concept of "selfishness" to get a clear understanding of what it IS.

A selfish man is one who acts for his own sake - one whose actions are directed to benefit oneself. I would quickly summarize it by: "I am doing this for me".
This, however, is not as simple as it sounds. What constitutes doing something "for yourself"? Is it gratification of emotions, regardless of their source? Is it pursuit of some ends, regardless of their nature? Is a man driven by chronic anxiety, trying to destroy other people's happiness a "selfish bastard"?
The answer is not as simple as it first appears to be. To understand what it means to "do something for yourself" we need to know what constitutes an objective benefit to someone.
If one is to be the beneficiary of one's own actions, one must first know what constitutes "benefit".
If one has no idea what is good for oneself, then one's actions cannot logically be selfish, since "I am doing this for me" is empty of meaning if one has no idea if that action is good for one or not.

Many regard selfishness as acting for the gratification of one's emotions. There is some truth to that, but only given the right context.

The only meaning life has, the only thing that makes life worthwhile, that rewards us for living - is pleasurable emotions, like love, happiness, pride and so on. The selfish man indeed then goes after these positive emotions and the gratification of other emotions. Putting anything else above the achievement of one's happiness is not selfish - because by the nature of our body and mind, the only benefit we have for anything in life is positive emotions.
This is the key to what "selfishness" is. The ultimate benefit, by our nature, is pleasurable emotions. Pursuing the only thing which is, by our nature, rewarding, is therefore the essence of selfishness.

This however, does not mean that "anything goes", that whatever emotions one happens to gratify are a selfish action. If a man feels chronic anxiety and jealousy and acts to gratify his need for destruction he is most definitely not selfish because he does not put his happiness as his highest goal. He rather lets whatever petty emotions and destructive premises he has take over his life, motivation and actions. He gives up on happiness entirely. He gives up self esteem. He gives up thinking and trying to decide what would be the best course of action. He replaces all of this with the ease of drifting on whatever emotions happen to come his way and the satisfaction and relief of jealousy and self-doubt.

Selfishness, is actually demanding. Because happiness is demanding.

Consider another example: someone who has adopted the idea of altruism as an ideal and feels a sense of satisfaction every time they sacrifice something for the sake of someone else. For example, they work for months saving up to buy something they want very much, and end up giving it to the son of their friends who happen to come over for a visit, because he really wants it. They feel pain for the loss of the item, but a feeling of satisfaction from "doing the right thing". Is that a selfish action, since they acted to gain satisfaction?
No, because to be selfish means to actually ACT on the principle of doing that which is the best for one's life. The emotion is nothing but an expression of a subconsciously accepted altruism. If one acts to satisfy it one surrenders fully to altruism, and most definitely does NOT act selfishly. Selfishness is not satisfaction of emotions regardless of their cause - selfishness is satisfying one's emotions which are validated to be "on the right track".

So now how does one measure what "the right track" is? Is it just a matter of arbitrary opinion of what one "should do"? No. Recall that in essence selfishness is acting to achieve pleasurable emotions - the best possible to you. Not everything will achieve a feeling of happiness, not everything achieves self esteem, which is a requirement of happiness.

It follows then that a selfish man follows, to the best of his knowledge, the principles which would lead to his happiness and that he does not surrender to any "temptation" that could endanger his happiness.

Let us look at a few examples.

Suppose one is blamed that one is bad for wanting to keep something one values all to oneself. One is told that one should share. One may, out of good faith in people, think that one may indeed be doing something wrong and one is facing a danger of losing friends or the appreciation of the people who bring up the accusation. Here one faces a decision: Will one bypass one's judgment and follow that of others - should one give up that value based on the judgment of others that it is the right thing to do, or should one act based on one's own conclusions? These two are not equal, not both are selfish.
If one decides to take others on their word, one gives up one's judgment and replaces it with others'. Not only that, but one actually gives up one's material goods. the dominant feeling one can expect from such a choice is a sense of loss of control. If it is not one's mind leading one's decisions - whose mind is it? Can one feel secure sitting in a car driven by someone else?
The second choice may be painful because it involves the loss of some people's approval - but one is making a selfish choice here, because acting based on one's own conclusions, not those of others, is a requirement of life and because one chooses to keep material values one has earned. In time one may discover what mistake those people made in demanding a sacrifice and cease to feel a sense of loss over their withdrawn approval.
One's own approval of oneself must always be a primary and come before others' approval if one is to be happy. Whenever one acts on this principle, one is acting selfishly because one is putting one's happiness and mental health above all else.

Or how about a case in which no other people are involved - just one man and his mind. One can be selfish or non-selfish even living completely alone. Suppose one day one experiences an emotion one considers to be a sign of someone lame of bad. It could be a feeling of helplessness, frustration, jealousy, fear and so on. One faces a choice here: To recognize the existence of the emotion, or to try to pretend as if the emotion never existed. No other people are involved in such a decision, yet only one path is selfish.
Why? Because only one path puts one's happiness above all else.
If one tries to pretend that one did not feel what one felt, one seals in the judgment of being bad, or not as good as one had expected. The judgment may be entirely unjustified or based on wrong premises, but if one never looks into it one can never rectify the situation.
Choosing to run away from the situation may alleviate one's immediate fear, but it is not a selfish choice since it does not put one's happiness above all else. In fact running away is a choice that seals in self-doubt.

This is the reason I call my blog "psychology of selfishness"; the central theme of the blog is how to live in a selfish way: in a way that puts your own happiness above all else.

Here is another common choice we face in life: To think or not to think? In any given situation one has the choice to use one's mind to seek the truth or to use one's mind in a different way. For example, on a desert island one can choose to put effort into thinking how to improve one's life, comfort and chances of survival and rescue or one can choose to let self pity take over, hide behind a rock and wait for death.
In modern society one can choose to discover the truth in every subject or to try to escape any recognition of failure. To close one's eyes and try to pretend that bad things are not happening. The selfish choice here, again, is one that puts one's happiness and one's life above all else - the choice to think. Because only by thinking and having knowledge, correct knowledge, can one act in an efficient way that actually promotes one's goals and life. Choosing not to think may provide a temporary escape but the price is a sense of loss of control, lack of self esteem and ultimately losing material property as well (or never gaining it).

The selfish is acting to achieve that which is good for you. We may make mistakes identifying it in specific situations, but so long as one holds the right principles and acts by them, one is selfish.

Take the case of Gail Wynand from Ayn Rand's book "The fountainhead". Gail was wrong on choosing the principle by which he lived. Gail thought he was acting in his self-interest by living the way he did, but despite his thought he lived an unselfish life and he was not happy.
Growing up, Gail was a poor boy who worked at "dirty", low-level jobs receiving orders from people which were morally and intellectually inferior to him. Gail grew up to discover that many honest people do not survive in the world. He was furious that evil wins, and decided to let that become the ruling idea in his life. He was so focused on the injustice that he let go of every personal desire to focus only on one: Never to receive another order from a low life. Never to have less power than the others. He became the owner of a tabloid whose content he despised but which brought him a lot of money and power. His life's creation was one which he despised and he worked to give others what they please, but never what Gail Wynand pleased.
Gail's mistake was not an error in an application of a principle, but error in the entire principle. The choice he made as a teenager was to base his life's goal not in his happiness, but in preventing evil from having financial superiority over him. It is an honest mistake, and one can easily understand how an honest man might feel so angry at the world - but when he made that anger into the ruling factor of his life he made his relation to other men the ruling idea and motivation of his life. He was no longer living for himself and indeed he spent his entire career writing things that pleased others.
This example shows that it is not enough to think that one is acting in one's best interest. To be selfish one must actually adopt and live by principles that place one's happiness above all else.

The conventional view of selfishness is wrong. Those people who have no grasp of the value of other people have a psychological problem. The "give me give me give me" mentality and "how rude, you expect something back?" is not the psychology of a selfish person but rather of an unhappy individual who receives no authentic enjoyment from the things he or she have. Those who are capable of understanding the values of others (that something can be precious to someone else) are those who experience such value themselves toward the things they love.
By equating this mentality with any desire to enjoy that which one has earned, one is sentencing oneself to a lifetime of guilt.
By saying that "everyone is selfish" because they act to gratify their emotions, one ends up ignoring the fact that happiness has specific requirements and demands.

"Selfishness" means to act by the principle by which your actions are directed to benefit you, to make you happy. It means that the principles by which you lead your life place nothing above your happiness.

Being selfish is both demanding, moral and good for you.

Recommended reading (on which my writing is based on, or describes): "The virtue of Selfishness" by Ayn Rand (specifically the article "Isn't everyone selfish" from that book) and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
Related article: Selfishness in relationships from my blog.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Good looks as a rational value

Is it shallow to care how one looks in the eyes of others? Is it a sign of some psychological weakness?

The problem is in the question itself. The action, or intention itself - is neither good nor bad - it depends on the wider context of an individual's psychology.

Some use good looks as a way to achieve "social stature" which they use as a replacement for self esteem. If you've ever wondered about the frantic way some people try to sell their life as a success story of a top model on social sites like Facebook, the above, in my opinion, is the reason.

However there are those who take pleasure openly in being aesthetically valued and enjoyed by others.
For them being appreciated for their looks, dressing up in the morning to welcome a world worth showing one's beauty to - is a pursuit of a rational value.

The appearance of a human being can communicate beauty which can not be found in nature and not in the most sensational sunset: It is beauty of character.
A proud way of standing, a hidden smile ready to bloom for the right occasion are a sight to enjoy for every man with a positive feeling about people and life.

A physical beauty to match a beautiful character reflects spiritual perfection in physical form and integrates them (as I will explain later in more detail). This integration between the spiritual and the physical is a cognitive need that comes from the nature of our mind as holding knowledge abstractly.

In what way can we "see" nobility, or pride? Only in physical, material, tangible things like facial expressions, body language and - body structure and facial features.
Spirituality has no visibility except through the material.
You can see this need to express spiritual perfection through physical perfection in art, where heroes have perfect proportions in addition to the right body language and expression. [See example]

Not every element in one's physical appearance reflects on one's character. If one is tough and truthful, it will reflect in one's habitual way of holding one's facial muscles. If one is proud and confident, it will show in one's manner of standing and walking. Obesity, in many cases, is an expression of psychological stress. But something like a 90-60-90 figure vs. a 80-70-90 figure (less feminine looking) reflects no spiritual trait.
It still remains, however, that physical beauty, even of the kind that does not reflect traits of character, creates an integration of the spiritual and physical in the viewer's mind, as can be seen in art.

Appreciation, in general, from others one appreciates is a rational value, even a psychological need. If one considers oneself worthy of appreciation then getting that appreciation from others is a tremendous value and pleasure.
The human mind is a powerful thing, when others are logical; their opinions mirror our own understanding of reality.
Self-esteem is a deep psychological need and a value one cannot live without. When our own recognition of our worth and achievements is reflected to us by others, we experience heightened awareness of the reality of our own value, which is very pleasurable.

Allowing others to enjoy one's physical beauty compliments that need (for people of self-esteem).

Consider the wonderful things physical beauty allows us to celebrate:
The romantic atmosphere of a date in which both look phenomenal (especially the woman) is largely due to the declaration that beauty is a great way to celebrate and enhance finding each other valuable.
When a woman takes special care to dress up for a date she is implicitly communicating to her partner that she sees him as a value and because of that getting his appreciation and enjoyment from her looks is a value to her - something she is willing to put the time into.

Investing in one's look on every day basis is a way to celebrate a world in which one is worthy of being seen and enjoyed by others. It is a reflection of seeing the world as good - as a place inhabited by good people (perhaps not all, or even many - but it at least expresses the recognition that some exist).

Notice that when one views the world as bad and people as evil one looses the desire to look good (I am talking about a rational person here, not about those who want to look good to win a competition with their friends).

Ever wondered why some women like shopping so much? Here is why: A piece of clothing that compliments one's figure and matches a certain event or atmosphere allows one to experience how one would like to be seen, evaluated and experienced by someone else in a certain occasion.

Clothes are like a piece of a fantasy, half real, stored in one's closet for future use. Women take pleasure in storing such fantasies in their closet because that makes the fantasies half real - a promise for an enjoyable future.
For example, buying a dress that emphasizes a woman's feminine features holds the romantic fantasy of a magical evening out with someone she admires. An elegant looking suit is a way to celebrate one's image as a good worker, appreciated as such by others, and so on.

The same is true for men, but more so for women because in romantic relationships women are the ones being pursued (although, this is another topic which I will leave for another time).

And in conclusion, take Will Smith's words on the value of good looks:


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Monday, February 1, 2010

Conformity as an enemy of self-esteem

Conformity is the process by which one adjusts one's behavior, values and beliefs to those which one holds as acceptable by other people.

If one observes a child or an adult trying to conform, one can see that the underlying emotion in their behavior is fear and a sense of loss of control.
They are driven by fear to say certain "acceptable" things that will make them feel that they belong. They are always in a pursuit of pleasing some external authority and never find the serenity of self-approval and self-appreciation.

Conformity is not just a harmless habit, which comes down to nothing more than making sure to wear the right brand of jeans and to exhibit the right kind of opinions and interests - these are merely the symptoms, the external manifestations, of a deep spiritual, psychological problem.

Conformity is a damaging idea that targets nothing short of an individual's entire spiritual life: One's self-esteem, sense of personal identity, enjoyment of values and the possibility of any fulfilling relationship.

Most parents not realizing this, encourage their children to conform, thinking that "a child needs to have friends", "a child needs to learn to be socially acceptable to succeed in this world".
Little do they know that they ensure that if the child has any friends by this method, there is nothing left but an empty puppet to enjoy them.
If an individual cannot enjoy friends, what's the point of having them? But the damage goes much deeper and eliminates not just one's ability to enjoy friends, but one's ability to enjoy - anything.

Teaching a child that conformity is good does not take a full blown indoctrination - it can be done by hints. For example, if a child expresses concern that he is "not like the other kids" in some regard, the parent can either ensure him that being himself is the good, or the parent can help the child be like the others, in which case, the parent would be implicitly teaching the child that this is the right course of action.
Parents can teach a kid "not to make a fas" about his or her personal emotions in order to maintain a socially acceptable image, or they can teach them that the child's inner life matters more than social appearance by showing such preference themselves.
Then, parents also teach their kids how to judge themselves by showing what they themselves appreciate about what the child does. If parents show no appreciation for a child's independent thinking and creativity, but show great pleasure when he brings 5 friends home - what kind of lesson are they teaching their kid?

When one accepts conformity, one accepts a standard by which to judge oneself - one attempts to switch the role of the judge to other people. However, by the nature of SELF-esteem, that is not possible. One's subconscious then attempts to evaluate one's worth by how well one considers oneself socially acceptable, how much and how many people like him or her, how comfortable people feel around him, how much they would appreciate his jokes, how well he falls under what people consider "the norm".
One turns oneself into an empty vessel whose worth is measured by how well one can read the social circumstances and adjust to be liked and to fit the social standards. Being an "outsider", different, someone who is not socially accepted by others creates, under this standard, a feeling of inadequacy, guilt and self-doubt. One thinks "if others don't like me, something must be wrong with me".

Externally, one picks one's clothes by the impression they make on others, not by one's own preference (which is never allowed to develop). One attempts to get friends that are "cool" - not ones that one has personal interest in (personal interests are eliminated over time in favor of the "acceptable" ones). If other people in one's environment have a girlfriend or a boyfriend one feels compelled to get one too, otherwise one feels inadequate - lacking worth. If other people have a certain amount of income or lifestyle, one tries to "live up" to it.

Internally, one gradually loses sense of personal identity and loses touch with one's values (depending to what extent one accept conformity as valid). It is not possible, under the emotional pressure of trying to pretend to be someone one's not, to continue to feel affection for one's values. One's values become worthless if they are outside social acceptances.
For example, if one has a socially unacceptable hobby (say, a guy that loves the ballet), one feels that to be any good, one must denounce it to fit into what is socially acceptable. If one finds certain things funny, but others do not - one attempts to change one's sense of humor.
It is not merely approval in the eyes of others a conformist seeks - but approval in one's own eyes by changing who one is.
It is in one's own mind that one feels inadequate if one fails to be "like the other kids". Approval from others becomes not a nice emotional bonus, but a pathological need.

However, achieving approval does not solve the chronic self-doubt. Even the most popular kid in the class is still driven by chronic fear, even more than others who are less popular. Why is that so? The reason is that conformity undercuts self-esteem, regardless of how well one becomes socially accepted by others.

Imagine you were asked to walk on an invisible bridge above an abyss - would you feel any better if 100 people told you the bridge is there once you make the first step? You reach down and feel nothing, you try to knock on it but nothing shows any resistance nor makes a sound. The same thing works in regard to self-esteem. When using conformity as a standard one can only rely on others to know that one is worth something. One has no personal evidence of it - no achievement (they are all discarded in favor of social acceptance), no spiritual traits one considers admirable (they are all discarded), and one learns that one cannot rely on oneself to protect one's values on the fly. A kid that accepts conformity may discover one day, to his or her amazement, that they threw away a favorite toy in the blink of an eye to prove to someone that they are "cool".

One learns that one is not trustworthy to maintain one's life, to achieve things or to protect what matters to one.
Even the most popular kid in class (or in adult life) experiences this - and the more popular they are the more detached from personal values they become.
The feeling of having one's personal identity disappear in the presence of others creates a chronic dread from the company of people, especially public speaking and makes one very hostile to independent people. It also prevents one from developing intimate relationships because one always sees others as something to "please", not as a real person.
Healthy relationships are built on mutual appreciation. One cannot enjoy appreciation nor give it if one gives up personal identity and a standard of values.

Since conformity is subconscious and automated, one may not even realize why one is experiencing such emotions, but only that, one feels tremendous pressure to act in a way others would approve of.

It could be limited to a feeling of pressure to smile to others and act pleasant and "normal", it could go deeper into a need to make one's jokes fit that which is "conventional" or in severe cases, an individual loses all personal identity and becomes a bitter clone of "the perfect social man" (in which case, not accidentally, they are preoccupied preaching acceptance of others, altruism and compassion and take every opportunity to crusade and blame anyone who is not "social" as a way to rationalize their emotional situation).

To concretize better how conformity is a psychological problem, let's contrast it to healthy self-esteem. How can one maintain stable self-esteem?
Self esteem comes from staying loyal to one's standard of judging people and of having one's standard grounded in reality.
For example, if one notices while growing up that lies and dishonesty are disastrous to human beings and one concludes that honesty is a virtue - then one clings to it no matter what. Suppose some person comes along and says "telling the truth is for suckers. The cool ones are those who can deceive others and get what they want from them" - then one does not surrender one's value of honesty in favor of living up to the other person's standard. If one does this consistently, one maintains healthy SELF ESTEEM - in the full sense of the words, and this feeling of serenity and confidence is always present in one's mind regardless of the circumstances or what other people think of one.

One gains self esteem from living up to one's ethical values and placing nothing above one's own judgement of what those values should be, based on one's experiences and knowledge. The hallmark of self esteem is selfishness - by which I don't mean the conventional term for "selfishness" as exploitation, but someone who always acts for his or her own benefit - in every second of the day one places nothing above one's own enjoyment (long and short term).

The trouble with conformity is that it becomes, after childhood, a subconscious, automatic way of thinking and feeling. One may act in ways that do not seem to be in pursuit of one's happiness, but to satisfy some other subconscious need. If one accepts the idea of conformity even for a limited time in childhood, then if left unchecked one is likely to suffer some automatic reactions relating to conformity as an adult.

The way to solve it, as with anything else, is to develop self awareness. To become aware of one's feelings and subconscious thoughts and then to correct them time and time again (if they are in need of correction). It is also important to go back to childhood memories and remember cases in which conformity was an issue. Thinking back to such cases and realizing what would have been the right course of action and the right response is another step in reprogramming your subconscious with the right values and standard.

Self-esteem is not automatic. It requires effort, judgment, refusal to compromise on one's values - but the result is a sense of serenity which is at the base of happiness and enjoyment of life.


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