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Enlightened Self-Interest

The ultimate self-interest lies in being good to others.

Joan: “Frank and I have been married for over twenty years. He was a career diplomat and I had faithfully followed him to his many posts around the world, being a supportive wife and mother of three. I made deep friendships and started projects wherever we lived, always to be uprooted by Frank’s inevitable transfers. When we finally returned to the United States and our children had matured and were on their own, I decided that it was finally my turn to follow my heart’s desire and I chose to get a degree at the local university. This program was suited to my orientation. In addition to being right for me, I had won a full fellowship. I was eager and excited to take my turn at last.”


“Then, just before school started, Frank had a massive heart attack that nearly killed him. On the way to the hospital, I had made up my mind to let go of my long awaited dream of studying at the university. When Frank opened his heavily drugged, groggy eyes I said to him, “Frank, don’t worry, I’ll stay right here by your side. I’m not going to go to graduate school. That’s not important anymore. I’ll stay home and take care of you.” I thought that these words would reassure him. I was wrong.”

“Despite the oxygen tubes coming out of his nose, the IV tubes going into his arm, the EKG wires running off his chest, and the nurses rushing in to hold him down, he managed with a massive effort to heave himself up to a near sitting position. “Joan…you will do no such thing…you must go to school…you must!” His eyes were huge from the effort and he was glaring at me. The nurses glared at me too. “Okay, Okay, I’ll go to school.”

Frank: “I spent a month in the hospital recovering while Joan went off to start school. I made my experience into a meditation retreat. It was a turning point in my life to let go of ambitious striving. What Joan sees as a great act of generosity was not a sacrifice, but a gift to her, myself, and our marriage all at the same time.”

Enlightened self-interest refers to the understanding and trust that what a person does to enhance another’s quality of life enhances one’s own quality of life to a similar degree. More simply put, it is the idea that “what goes around comes around.” The happiest couples report that they derive great pleasure in supporting others in general in their lives, and their partner in particular. While most of our actions are motivated by a desire to fulfill inner needs and personal desires, acts of enlightened self-interest serve the well-being of others as well. Enlightened self-interest means that everybody wins.

The recognition that being committed to another’s well being is personally fulfilling is the basis of a cycle of mutual generosity that creates an ongoing, self-reinforcing loop that deepens and becomes more enriching over time. The most successful couples don’t “give to get” in a co-dependent way, but rather give their care and support to each other from a well that is already full. They generally don’t see themselves as being especially considerate or generous, but rather as simply acting in response to a perceived need or desire in another. The kinds of remarks that we hear all the time from couples that are delighted with their relationships are, “I enjoy doing things that help; that’s why I do them.” “I’m not a particularly unselfish person. I do things that make me feel good and making her happy is one of my greatest joys.” “His happiness always comes back and benefits me.” It’s the ultimate win-win game.

Enlightened self-interest, which arises from a sense of wholeness, sufficiency, and love is different from co-dependency, which arises out of feelings of fear, scarcity, and insufficiency. In a co-dependent relationship, one partner may stretch into the other’s world, following their lead, trying to please them because they are fearful that if they don’t, unpleasant repercussions will occur. The motivation for the acts of generosity that spring from enlightened self-interest is love, rather than fearfulness.

When the fulfillment of each other is a high priority for each partner, other desires and preferences become subordinate to that intention. Feelings of sacrifice dissolve because we are not giving up anything that we really need. Getting “my way” becomes much less of a priority because getting "our way" becomes what I really want since to fulfill my desires at the expense of my partner’s missing out on theirs would leave us both feeling diminished.

We still, of course have our personal preferences; preferences don’t go away. But all they are is preferences. There is no urgency about having them fulfilled unless they are essential to our well being. We are more concerned about the fulfillment of a higher purpose, which is the well- being of the relationship and each other. We are finally relieved of the need to keep score, since the object of the game is no longer to make sure that I get my share, but rather to co-create as much mutual happiness and fulfillment as we can.

The shadow side of enlightened self-interest is that when our partner feels pain, sadness, or disappointment, we are so close to them and their experience that we too suffer. It’s a package plan. We can’t experience the joy of giving and receiving without also experiencing the suffering that is inherent in life. Many people avoid closeness out of a desire to avoid the painful feelings of their partner. Unfortunately you can’t have one without the other.

When we begin to make the other’s needs as important as our own, not more important than our own, but not less important than our own, we are well on our way to having the dynamic of enlightened self interest working for us in our relationship. Feeling the pain of our partner is part of the price we pay to share the joy of each other’s happiness. And you don’t have to limit this process to one person. You can apply it to anyone (or everyone) in your life! Imagine what life would be like if you brought enlightened self-interest into all of your relationships. You might see that as an impractical or unrealistic idea, but consider the possibility that it could be the most practical thing that you could do!

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