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When It's OK to Be Selfish

A new scale for measuring healthy selfishness.

Key points

  • Society has a taboo of selfishness.
  • It's important to distinguish between healthy selfishness and unhealthy selfishness.
  • We created the Healthy Selfishness Scale (HSS) to investigate the correlates of healthy selfishness in the real world.
  • Healthy selfishness is correlated with higher levels of well-being, life satisfaction, and genuine motives for helping others.
Cast of Thousands/Shutterstock
Source: Cast of Thousands/Shutterstock

“Modern culture is pervaded by a taboo on selfishness,” wrote Erich Fromm in his 1939 essay "Selfishness and Self-Love." "It teaches that to be selfish is sinful and that to love others is virtuous." Fromm notes that this cultural taboo has had the unfortunate consequence of making people feel guilty for showing themselves healthy self-love and has even caused people to become ashamed of experiencing pleasure, health, and personal growth.

What if the way we are socially conditioned to think about selfishness is misguided? What if there is great value in cultivating healthy selfishness? Inspired by Fromm's essay, the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow argued for the need to distinguish between healthy selfishness, which is rooted in psychological abundance, and unhealthy selfishness, which is rooted in psychological poverty, neuroticism, and greed.

“For our part, we must not prejudge the case," notes Maslow. "We must not assume that selfish or unselfish behavior is either good or bad until we actually determine where the truth exists. It may be that at certain times, selfish behavior is good, and at other times, it is bad. It also may be that unselfish behavior is sometimes good and at other times bad.”

Both Maslow and Fromm held that healthy self-love requires a healthy respect for oneself and one’s boundaries, and affirmation of the importance of one’s own health, growth, happiness, joy, and freedom. Self-actualizing people have healthy boundaries, self-care, and the capacity to enjoy themselves.

Drawing on both Fromm and Maslow's writings, I was inspired to create a "Healthy Selfishness Scale" (HSS) and investigate its correlates in the real world. I defined healthy selfishness as having a healthy respect for your own health, growth, happiness, joy, and freedom. Here are the items on the Healthy Selfishness Scale

  • I have healthy boundaries.
  • I have a lot of self-care.
  • I have a healthy dose of self-respect and don’t let people take advantage of me.
  • I balance my own needs with the needs of others.
  • I advocate for my own needs.
  • I have a healthy form of selfishness (e.g., meditation, eating healthy, exercising, etc.) that does not hurt others.
  • Even though I give a lot to others, I know when to recharge.
  • I give myself permission to enjoy myself, even if it doesn’t necessarily help others.
  • I take good care of myself.
  • I prioritize my own personal projects over the demands of others.

Our findings may surprise you. They definitely go against the grain of the cultural narrative that all forms of selfishness are necessarily bad. In terms of benefits to self, we found that healthy selfishness was a strong positive predictor of high self-worth, well-being, and life satisfaction, and was a strong negative predictor of depression. We found that the Healthy Selfishness Scale predicted adaptive psychological functioning above and beyond other personality traits that have traditionally been studied in psychology (e.g., the Big Five personality traits).

Healthy selfishness was positively related to a sense of self-competence (the perception that one is reaching one's goals in life) and authentic pride for one's accomplishments. Healthy selfishness was not correlated with hubristic pride, or a motivation to aggressively dominate others on the way to the top.

Along similar lines, healthy selfishness was negatively correlated with unhealthy selfishness, which we defined as a strong motivation to exploit others for your own personal gain, and healthy selfishness was negatively correlated with vulnerable narcissism and toxic altruism (the tendency to help others for one's own selfish gain). It’s clear that healthy selfishness can be distinguished from pathological self-love and even pathological self-sacrifice.

Interestingly, we found that healthy selfishness was negatively related to intrusive and overbearing child-rearing practices. Perhaps healthy selfishness develops as the result of being able to express one's needs as a child in a healthy manner.

Individuals with high levels of healthy selfishness also tended to show themselves greater self-compassion. We are often so cold to ourselves, and self-compassion offers a valuable tool to help free ourselves from ourselves. As Fromm put it, “People are their own slave drivers; instead of being the slaves of a master outside of themselves, they have put the master within.”

Finally, it may seem paradoxical, but we also found that people who scored higher in healthy selfishness were more likely to care about others and report genuine motives for helping others ("I like helping others because it genuinely makes me feel good to help others grow"). Healthy selfishness was negatively related to more neurotic motives for helping others ("A major reason why I help people is to gain approval from them"; "I often give to others to avoid rejection").

Erich Fromm conceptualized love as an attitude, a way of being in the world where you have a healthy respect for the health, growth, happiness, joy, and freedom of others. Our research suggests that the light of love can shine in any direction—outside to others but also inside to help develop one's own self.

Love is love. Full stop.

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Kaufman, S.B., & Jauk, E. (2020). Healthy Selfishness and Pathological Altruism: Measuring Two Paradoxical Forms of Selfishness. Frontiers in Psychology.

You can take the test here and see how your results compare to others who have taken the test.

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