(This is an extract from my book “How To Make Your Dreams Come True”)
If we need our lives to be integrated, then what is the guiding principle that we should follow which will give that integrity – which will stop us being at war with ourselves?
I would suggest that it is to act always in our own best interests. This is a very difficult concept for most people to deal with. Most of us are brought up to think of acting in our own best interests as selfish. By the word ‘selfish’ they mean a mean-spirited, ungenerous attitude which grabs what it wants at the expense of other people and doesn’t care less what other people think or feel. In fact this is the very reverse of acting in one’s own best interests, since it can hardly be thought to be in anyone’s best interests to alienate other people so that they will not cooperate.
The results of confusing acting in one’s own best interests with a narrow mean-spiritedness are disastrous. In the effort not to appear ‘selfish’ people often become completely cut off from their own wants and desires. And since it is very difficult to give what one doesn’t have, they become insensitive to the wants and desires of those who are close to them too.
Another result of this confusion is to cut people off from reality. As children we are usually discouraged from exploring what our own best interests really are in favour of conforming to other people’s vision of what we should be doing. This usually means that instead of doing what we really believe is best for us we end up either doing what other people want us to do or rebelling against it, neither of which brings us any nearer to following our own vision for our lives.
At its most basic the brain is an instrument for achieving the best interests of the organism. The higher the organism the more sophisticated the brain and the more sophisticated the strategies it follows. However, this sophisticated functioning will revert to lower levels of functioning when faced with contradictions it cannot resolve.
The message that is given to us when we are young and that comes over loud and clear is that what is in our best interests is not in our best interests. Faced with having to integrate the contradictions implicit in a message such as this the brain tends to close down whole areas of experience.
Let us look at how someone would act who follows their own best interests consistently. People who act consistently in their own best interests would be likely to:
• be clear about what is important in their lives and pursue those things single-mindedly;
• cooperate with others to achieve results;
• look after their own health and fitness;
• refuse to engage in self-destructive behaviours;
• select their friends carefully and maintain those friendships;
• stay in touch with the reality of situations;
• refuse to take on commitments that are not consistent with their own vision;
• continually expand their comfort zones;
• ensure that they have the education and training to do what is important to them;
• build on the experience and wisdom of other people;
• be prepared to pay the price for what they want;
• regard the selection of a life partner as the single most important decision they will probably ever make;
• keep everything in their lives well maintained;
• be sensitive to their own feelings and needs;
• be aware of the likely consequences of their actions;
• think about long-term results rather than short-term ones.
This list is illustrative rather than exhaustive. But if we contrast the above behaviours with their opposites we can see more clearly how common it is for people not to act in their own best interests. People who don’t act in their own best interests may:
• have no clear vision for what they want to achieve;
• see themselves in competition with other people;
• be overweight, unfit or otherwise not be taking care of their health;
• have self-destructive behaviours such as drug-taking, self-sabotage, workaholism etc.;
• neglect their friendships;
• do anything rather than face up to the reality of situations;
• be loaded with commitments that they resent;
• be stuck in a rut;
• fail to keep learning, either formally or informally;
• be reluctant to ask other people for help;
• not be prepared to put in the effort or cost needed to achieve what they want;
• select a life partner on the basis of the whim of the moment;
• live poorly maintained lives which are constantly in a state of crisis or breakdown;
• be anaesthetised to their own feelings and needs;
• ignore the likely consequences of their actions or lack of action;
• think purely in terms of short-term advantage.
So we can see that far from being ‘selfish’ in the pejorative sense of the word, acting in our own best interests results in highly desirable behaviour both from our own point of view and the point of view of other people. In fact an accusation that someone who is acting in their own best interests is ‘selfish’ usually means that the accuser wants the ‘selfish’ person to sacrifice himself or herself for the accuser’s benefit.
Again I would stress the point that what we think of as typically selfish behaviour, such as grabbing everything for oneself at the expense of other people, is hardly ever in one’s own best interests. But the way to discourage such behaviour is not to teach children that they should sacrifice their own interests for the interests of others, but to show them why this type of behaviour is not really in their interests at all.
Ask yourself the question: ‘If I were consistently to act in my own best interests, what would I do differently?’ List as many things as you can, both large and small. These are some of the items, out of a very long list, which one of my clients wrote in answer to this question:
• I would only say yes when I was able to say it wholeheartedly, otherwise I would say no.
• I would go to bed at a sensible time every night except for special occasions.
• I would make time to spend on my own.
• I would stop putting off the decision to change jobs.
• I would stop shouting at my children.
• I would make it a priority to get out of debt.
• I would stop leaving the choice of holiday up to my partner.
• I would stop bringing work home in the evenings.
• I would plan a family outing at least once a month.
• I would check the car tyre pressures regularly.
• I would face up to my financial position.
• I would work out why I keep losing vital bits of paper.
We can use this concept of enlightened self-interest as a tool to evaluate potential courses of action. Perhaps even more important we can use it as a tool to evaluate our current actions. I will use the word ‘self-ish’ with a hyphen in this context to distinguish it from the pejorative, narrow use of the word ‘selfish’. Is what I am doing at this precise moment properly self-ish (in the sense of being in my own best interest)?
What I am doing at this precise moment is writing this paragraph, which is part of my goal of writing this book, which is part of my wider vision of where I wish to go in my life. So yes, what I am doing at this precise moment is indeed properly self-ish. But note that although my primary motivation for doing it is my own self-interest it is none the less an action which will (I hope) benefit other people as well. There is nothing anti-social or malevolent about being self-ish.
It has often been pointed out by theologians that the biblical injunction is ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’, not ‘Love thy neighbour more than thyself’ or ‘Love thy neighbour instead of thyself’. In fact logically it would be impossible for everyone to love their neighbour instead of themselves because who would do the receiving if that were the case? It would be like the scene in Father Ted where two women come to blows because each one insists that she should pay for tea. However, the idea that we should love other people more than or instead of ourselves is one that is very prevalent in our culture. And since it is a logically untenable position which it is actually impossible to keep to, it results in either guilt, denial or rebellion.
So one of the most important thing we can do in our lives is to give them integrity and unity by having one guiding principle to follow. And the best guiding principle to have is the enlightened pursuit of our own best interests.