Is it Selfish to Pursue Happiness?

27 Apr

Seeking our own personal happiness may feel, sometimes, as if we are being completely self-absorbed. Is focusing on being happy a selfish act, even self-indulgent?

The Dalai Lama doesn’t think so – he says:

The purpose of our existence is to seek happiness.

Wow. Aristotle said happiness is the meaning and purpose of life. Psychological research shows, in fact, that unhappy people tend to be the most self-focused and are often socially withdrawn, brooding and even antagonistic. Happy people, in contrast, are generally more sociable, flexible, generous, forgiving and creative; they are also able to tolerate life’s daily frustrations more easily. So perhaps being happy isn’t so selfish; it not only improves our own life, but those around us.

One of my favorite quotes from Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project reiterates this:

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”

So does a lot of the feedback I’ve gotten from friends who agreed to take my “happiness interview” (thanks, ya’ll!). Heather says, “When things are going particularly well for me and I’m really up, I feel like I want to give it back. I want to spread good fortune.” Jefre wrote, “When we are truly happy internally (at peace with self if you will) then we tend to give our gifts to the world more freely without regards to how the world may see that gift.” And Keith adds, “When we are happy we are more capable of feeling connected to others and the world around us, and this in turn engenders us to do more good in the world.”

Kathy says, “I believe when you are in that state of happiness, you are selfless and it is much easier to do good.  It is hard to think about doing good deeds for others if you are self-absorbed” – again echoing this concept that being happy is the opposite of being selfish. Sandy believes that it’s not only easier to do good when we are happy, but that doing good can create or raise our happiness. Perhaps she instilled this in me; she is my mother, after all, and I wrote about this very phenomenon that I experienced in my 30 Days of Giving, for GivingCity Austin – that when I was in a bad mood or having a hard day, it was often my act of giving that would pull me out of it and make me feel better. Sandy says:

“One small gesture can actually turn your day or mood around. So I think the same holds true for us doing the same for others….the greater the deed, the greater the emotional reward to ourselves. I truly believe what we put out into the universe comes back to us many times over.”

Dawnene agrees, saying “I also find that when I’m unhappy, by being giving, volunteering or even giving a dollar or a meal to a homeless person or helping a homeless animal will instantly cheer me up.” In fact, altruism and generosity both have a circular effect on happiness – happy people are more altruistic, and altruistic acts or compassion have proven effects on our happiness, our mental outlook and even our physical health. Sociology research, including that done at Harvard University and the University of Michigan, shows that compassion actually increases our antibodies and that doing regular volunteer work dramatically increases life expectancy, more than any other activity. Developing an altruistic lifestyle is a critical component of good mental and physical health, and happiness; psychologists even have a term for it – “helper’s high,” which is linked to relief from a variety of mental and physical disorders including stress, headaches and pain. It releases endorphins, similar to when we exercise; and amazingly, even the act of remembering helping increases this! (Psychology Today)

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The Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley has a great article on The Hows of Happiness, finding that much of our happiness is within our own control. Some would argue that all of it is, but we’ll leave that up to each individual. Not surprisingly, giving is one of their ways for creating personal happiness; here is the complete list in a nutshell, but you’ll want to read the entire article:

  • Spend quality time with friends, family and those you’re closest to.
  • Forgive, and refrain from holding grudges
  • Count your blessings and give thanks
  • Practice kindness and give to others
  • Exercise
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Practice mindfulness and in-the-present-moment awareness

And you’ll need to stick with it. Trying any of these once or twice might give you a nice happiness boost, but lasting happiness only comes with commitment and persistence.

5 Responses to “Is it Selfish to Pursue Happiness?”

  1. Helena May 3, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    I love this! Sometimes it is really hard to pursue your own happiness without feeling bad about it (and thus negating the whole thing!).

  2. Meg May 8, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

    I love this post! Especially as a Mum, there is so much emphasis on looking after the needs of others, looking after our own happiness can feel inappropriate or self-centred.

    Thanks for the reminder that our happiness and that of others is intertwined 🙂

  3. Shelley Seale May 15, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

    Thank you both for your comments. As a mother myself, I agree that some people can attempt to make us feel guilty for pursuing our own personal happiness – but it’s vital for those around us as well.

    This was really demonstrated to me in one of my biggest life lessons, in the previous relationship I had before my current, wonderful and healthy one. The relationship before this, a few years ago, was completely toxic and dysfunctional. I didn’t realize until the end of it and much later, that the person I was with was not only dysfunctional, but incredibly unhappy, messed up and manic-depressive. He was also the most self-absorbed, antagonistic person I’ve ever known. I started becoming a lot like him, and I didn’t like myself one bit; also, I was the most miserable I’ve been in my whole life.

    Unhappiness really is contagious, and before we even know it we are mired down in it. But happiness is also contagious – and so if we focus on being happy ourselves, it spreads to others. And isn’t that what we want for not only ourselves, but the people we love?

    My life today, since I woke up and learned all this and began living this way, is a thousand times opposite what it was. I am incredibly happy, in a terrific relationship with a great guy – but it’s not because of him or any other people. It’s because I chose happiness for myself, and then these things were drawn to me.

    Focus on what’s inside you – because that’s the gift you will give to others, and that is what you will draw into your life.


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