Selfish or Generous? Science Explains Which Is Better

How can you tell if you are selfish or generous? The answer might surprise you.

Posted Nov 29, 2018

Does it really matter if you are selfish or generous? Although most contemporary religious and moral codes view generosity as an important virtue, selfishness seems to be privileged more and more in cultures around the world.

So is it better to take care of your own needs (and perhaps those of your loved ones) and not to worry about others? I mean, if everyone took care of themselves, then we wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of anyone else, right? Or is it better to give – maybe even more than you can truly afford to give – in order to help protect those who cannot protect themselves?

It is actually a question that is worth taking a few minutes to think about. For one thing, the differences between the two qualities may not be quite as clear as we think. For another, what looks selfish can sometimes also be generous, and what looks generous can actually be selfish. 

How can this be? The Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of generous includes “noble, kindly, magnanimous, and liberal in giving,” while the definition of selfish is “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.” 

 Belchonok/123rf
Source: Belchonok/123rf

Pretty obviously different, right? Well, except that sometimes being “liberal in giving” can make us feel good about ourselves. Does it ever work the other way? Can being selfish really mean being noble or kindly or magnanimous? 

There are several online quizzes you can take to see how generous you are, in case you don’t know; but what’s most interesting about them is that they almost all end up showing that there’s an important balance we have to strike between generosity and martyrdom, and self-care and selfishness. Finding a place in the middle of these extremes is not always easy.

For instance, John Stepper, blogger and founder of Working Out Loud suggests an exercise in which you hold the door open for other people and then pay attention to your own reactions. Do you feel pleased with yourself because you’ve done something nice? Pleased if the other person says “thank you”?  Irritated if they don’t thank you?

All too often, Stepper says, we give out of a wish to be recognized and rewarded for our generosity. Which I think might not be the worst result of being selfish, as a matter of fact.

But if we get frustrated and stop giving when we don’t get the response we want, or if we expect or require something from our recipients in return, then the generosity becomes something else – something that involves controlling, demanding, and even manipulation – and that’s pretty much the opposite of generosity.  

Stepper talks about something that Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, brings up in his book, The Start-Up of You – a theory of “small gifts.”

This is what Reid writes: 

“It seems counterintuitive, but the more altruistic your attitude, the more benefits you will gain from the relationship. If you insist on a quid pro quo every time you help others, you will have a much narrower network and a more limited set of opportunities. Conversely, if you set out to help others…simply because you think it’s the right thing to do, you will rapidly reinforce your own reputation and expand your universe of possibilities.”

Small gifts, freely given, are like magic for both parties. For the giver, the contributions feel authentic and genuine because there are no strings attached. It's easier to give because you're not manipulating or promoting, you're being helpful. The receiver, sensing this, isn’t burdened by the weight of an obligation, and the gift no longer feels like an unwanted transaction.

Suze Orman says, “True generosity is an offering; given freely and out of pure love. No strings attached. No expectations. Time and love are the most valuable possession you can share.”

Interestingly, according to Wharton Professor Adam Grant, who has conducted research to try to understand why some people give and others take (see his book Give and Take), “givers,” who he calls “the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return,” are the most successful entrepreneurs.

Yet, on the other hand, even givers need to take care of themselves.  Although giving to others can replenish us in many ways, it is important to remember that there is a limit to our energy. We would all do well to keep in mind the airline rule to "put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs."

Even though we've all heard that line so often that we barely even notice it anymore (except to make jokes about it), it's a terrific mantra for life. If we try to take care of someone else without taking care of ourselves, we can become too depleted – of oxygen or energy or internal supplies – to help them. This, of course, does not mean that we are supposed to either literally or symbolically put on our own mask, use up all the oxygen and ignore everyone else; but in order to give to others, we do have to have enough internal resources to give them what they need. The philosopher Kahlil Gibran put it this way in his book The Madman: “Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.” 

Not taking what you need can lead, in a slightly roundabout way, to a failure of compassion for others. The author and spiritual guide Pema Chodron speaks of the importance of having compassion for ourselves in order to feel compassion for others. But she clarifies that for her compassion involves an honest and open recognition of our weaknesses and failures, our faults as well as our strengths. This kind of self-acceptance makes it possible to accept the limitations of others, which in turn tends to make us more generous with them. 

During the busiest seasons of the year selfishness and generosity often come into conflict more clearly than at any other time. Finding a way to balance these two opposites can be difficult. But constantly looking for and trying to restore that balance is what makes generosity more than martyrdom, and self-care less than selfishness.  

Please respond with your comments, but know that I cannot answer requests for individualized advice. Many thanks!

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