Selfish Generosity

Selfish Generosity

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Feb 04, 2023 • 4 min read
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Surprisingly, the first relationship lesson suggested spending time alone instead of with family and friends. Developing a strong sense of self is a prerequisite for building authentic relationships. We must become friends with ourselves before we can feel comfortable around others. However, there is another common misconception we need to overcome.

Western culture has created the concepts of the self and others and treats them as opposites. While showing concern for others is seen as noble, caring for ourselves is not always viewed in a positive light: self-care is often stigmatized as selfish and may even be considered immoral.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?

— Rabbi Hillel
Two colorful characters look puzzled at Rupert, meditating.
Rupert is seen as selfish, but Rupert knows better.

Self-care is neither selfish nor immoral. There is a strong connection between caring for ourselves and caring for others. The self and others are intertwined as if they were the same. Indeed, in Tibetan, there is one word that means both "self" and "others." By understanding how we feel, we also understand how others feel. We develop empathy. Empathy then serves as a glue between ourselves and others, manifesting in action as generosity.

When people feel good, they are more likely to help others.

— Alice Isen

Numerous research studies have demonstrated that this process also works the other way. When we help others, we are more likely to feel good and create an upward spiral of generosity—giving leads to receiving, and receiving leads to giving. Generosity is a selfish and selfless act that benefits the giver and the receiver. By calling it selfish generosity, we remind ourselves of the less obvious fact—that givers also benefit.

Selfish generosity is being generous toward yourself and others.

As long as society celebrates selfless acts and dishonors self-care, people may be tempted to get attention by behaving selflessly out of extrinsic motivation—just to be recognized—which is not a selfless act.

"Hey, look at me! I am pushing these poor stranded whales back to the ocean!"

#humblebrag #bornselfless #eatingfishtonight

Instead of seeing self-care as a personal benefit, we can view it as a way to benefit ourselves and others.


Being generous is one of the most effective ways to increase our well-being. Its essential benefits include the following:

  • Increased happiness
  • Authentic relationships
  • Professional success

Whether generosity helps us become successful or not depends on one condition: We must not deny ourselves while being generous to others. The most successful individuals remember to give to themselves as well.

Rupert, a yellow character, holds a gift for a pink character while hiding a bigger gift behind himself.
Rupert gives to others but remembers to give to himself as well.

Action steps

To practice selfish generosity, you can perform an additional random act of kindness beyond what you usually do. Unlike other lessons, there are no ordered steps. Instead, there are suggestions to consider when practicing selfish generosity:

  1. Introduce variety to the ways you show kindness. Sometimes, kindness can start to feel routine, so it is helpful to approach it with curiosity and experimentation. Look for different ways you can benefit others. It does not matter whether you hold a door for a stranger, greet a neighbor with a bright smile, or tell a friend how much you appreciate their friendship. By bringing novelty into your random acts of kindness, your emotional reward will remain high.
You can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness.

— Anne Frank
  1. Choose a different person every time. How much you give or take is shaped by those you interact with. Research reveals that you are more likely to be kinder to those who are similar to you. Although it's easier to interact with these individuals at first, consider looking for different people, especially those who may not expect goodness from others. Your random acts of kindness could have a transformative effect on them.
Those who are hardest to love need it the most.

— Socrates
  1. Be kind, as if no one is watching you. Being recognized for our kindness by others may be a hindrance. By expressing kindness anonymously, as if no one is watching, you ensure that your motivation is intrinsic so that you feel the real benefits of being kind. Even the person you show kindness to does not have to be aware of it—such as tidying up items that fell off the shelf in the supermarket or picking up trash while hiking.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men.

— Matthew 6:2
Rupert in hat picks up trash in snow.
Rupert is doing a random act of kindness in anonymity.

You can consider giving money. It can buy you happiness if you spend it on others. Research demonstrates that those who spend money on others enjoy increased happiness levels compared to those who spend it on themselves. The actual amount does not matter—you benefit as long as you give.

Practical tip

If you are an exhausted giver, such as in a caregiving profession, this tip may help you avoid burnout. Recent investigations suggest that the remedy for burnout does not necessarily lie in reducing the workload but in witnessing the impact you make.

Witness the impact of your kindness.

Do something selfish: Be generous, and when you advance, let no one see you.

Now or never

For the next two weeks, do an extra random act of kindness a day beyond what you usually do. Create a daily reminder.