I was reading this excellent article from Psychology Today called “Why Doing Good is Selfish” and I recommend you read it as well:
Both my title and the title of the article are going to sound deceivingly negative but bare with us.
I’m going to add to this article because I feel that while the author did an excellent job of saying why it’s actually beneficial for you to do inherently selfless things and also beneficial for others, it did not actually answer a deeper question for me or many others…the fact that it is still selfish.
When you are a very giving, morally-driven person, you want to sacrifice something of yourself, so that others will be happy – to act on what you’re doing not just because it will make you feel good, but because it will make others feel good. The problem with this is, assuming you’re being genuine about your wanting to make others happy, that it also makes you feel good about yourself. This isn’t actually a “problem” per say, but it’s something that I’ve worried about in the past. Doesn’t that undermine the whole idea of being selfless? That you’re doing it because it makes you feel good to sacrifice for others when in fact you actually are getting something back?
I’ve thought about this a lot and I finally realized, that absolutely no one does anything without personal gain of some kind (even if that reaction is an involuntary reflex, which is your body trying to preserve your well-being/life). If we must pick a selfish reason, let that reason at the very least be one that is also helping others. Let yourself have a little of that credit because as the article pointed out, it makes the people who are grateful to you feel good about making you happy too, if not, you are actually being unkind in not allowing them that same happiness.
This doesn’t mean that you should run around bragging about the good things you’ve done for others because then you’re doing it purely for self-glory and also looking for reassurance from others instead of being self-assured that you did the right thing. If you need a reason to respect yourself and give kindness to yourself (and you do, or you’ll have no sense of reason to live), let it at least be a reason that benefits society. Even in the cases where people are doing charity work purely for praise, at least they’re doing it. I’d rather they’re helping people while boosting their own ego than investing their time into doing something that either hurts others or benefits only themselves (which often, you cannot do without actually hurting someone, even those who do not act are not truly neutral, they are simply allowing evil to happen). I would just be careful to make sure it’s only because it makes you feel better about yourself as a human being and not because you want praise or reassurance from others.
This is another reason why I believe no one person can be completely good or bad. It just can’t happen. No act in itself is completely pure of morals or personal gain, but we all must choose, knowing that we can’t be perfect. We are doomed from birth to make selfish mistakes, it is the nature of survival. Yet it seems that even in our selfishness, we often help each other. Let our helping each other be done intentionally instead of by accident or by indirect consequence.