Why Wanting to Be Happy Isn't a Selfish Goal

How to help yourself so you can help others

Sep 14, 2017
Daisies stand in the grass against a backdrop of a blue heaven with clouds

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While we often presume that everyone wants to be happy, in some cultures and religions, being happy is regarded as a self-indulgent or selfish aim—and the happiness of others is considered more important. In such circumstances, people may tend to feel guilty about paying attention to their personal happiness, especially if others seem less happy than they are.


The Oxford dictionary describes selfishness as "the quality or state of being selfish; lack of consideration for other people." This suggests that selfish people are mainly concerned with their own personal gain and pleasure. Yet the science of happiness shows that these characteristics are not generally associated with happy people at all.


The science shows that happiness spreads in the same way a virus does. Longitudinal analysis of data from the Framingham Heart Study has shown that our happiness is affected by those we are socially connected to. In this study, happiness spread from one individual to their friends by up to three degrees of separation. In other words, it influenced the happiness of the person's friend, their friend’s friends, and their friend's friends' friends. The researchers concluded that our happiness is largely influenced by the happiness of those we socialize with. We can become happier simply by spending time with happy people, and spread happiness by being a happy person.


Other research suggests that far from being selfish, happy people are more likely to be generous and kind. One study concluded that happy people were more likely to donate to charity, and another by Isen & Levin found that after experiencing positive events, participants were more likely to help other people. The effect was also evident in third-grade schoolchildren, who were more altruistic when they felt happy.


In Appreciative Healthcare Practice, a guide to compassionate person-centered care, the authors explain that the concept of self-caring is the opposite of selfishness. They suggest that one needs to ensure self-care first, before being capable of caring for others. Once an individual has ensured her own self-care, she is more able to naturally extend care to others. This principle surely applies to all of us, whether we have professional roles in healthcare, education, or business, and/or care for friends, family, or people in our communities.


meta-analysis of numerous studies of happy individuals revealed that happiness is associated with—and precedes—many successful outcomes. This suggests that it is happiness that creates success, rather than the common view that happiness comes as a result of success.

Here are five examples taken from the study that show how personal happiness can have a positive impact on and benefit others. Happy people are more like to:

Be involved in their community
Be more inclusive of others
Be less judgmental
Be more inclined to help others
Perform better at work

These are not the habits of selfish people.


If our happiness is a driver of altruistic and generous behavior, perhaps refusing to take responsibility for one’s own happiness is a more selfish act than trying to sustain or increase it. Just as airline safety demonstrations advise passengers to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others, so too, it may be wise for us to tend to our own happiness so we can help others be happy as well.

Even those people who do not consider their own happiness to be a priority are likely to value the happiness of their loved ones and those they care for. Happiness can help you be a better friend, parent, relative, partner, employee, and neighbor. Happiness is in everyone’s interest—and wouldn’t it be good to live in a happier world?

Lesley Lyle, MAPP, DipHE, is a positive psychology practitioner and associate lecturer on the MSc Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) course at Buckinghamshire New University UK. She is co-founder and director of Positive Psychology Learning and The Positive Psychology People. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

This article was originally published on Happify, and appears here with permission.

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