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Enlightened self-interest

By Wayne Froggatt
Consultant Director of the Centre for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, London, and Director of the New Zealand Centre for Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. 

This version: 13 January, 1997
This document is copyright (c) to Wayne Froggatt, 205 Sunnybank Crescent, Hastings, New Zealand; and may not be reproduced in any format, either wholly or in part, without the written permission of the author.

* The ability to act in your own interests follows on from self-acceptance and confidence. As we shall see, though, it is also important to take into account the interests of others. The principle of enlightened self-interest has two parts:
* To cope with stress and achieve happiness, you need to place your own interests first; and ...
* Your own interests will be best served if you take into account the interests of other people.

Human beings are fundamentally self-interested
* Notwithstanding any precepts which say we 'should' be otherwise, human beings appear to be intrinsically concerned first with their own welfare.
* Hans Selye has argued that the desire to maintain oneself and stay happy is the most ancient - and one of the most important - impulses that motivates living beings. All living beings protect their own interests first of all. The only body cells that survive, for example, are those that cooperate with other cells - but cells only cooperate to ensure their own survival.

Human beings are also motivated by social interest
* Selye has pointed out, though, that while 'selfishness' is natural, we try to deny its existence in ourselves. This is because we are also strongly motivated by altruistic feelings, and selfishness seems ugly and is perceived as dangerous to society.
* What Selye calls altruism represents social interest - the wish to ensure that the social system as a whole survives and develops. It appears that social interest, like self-interest, is also inherent within human beings.
Self- and social-interest?
* How is that two apparently contradictory tendencies can co-exist? The answer is that we help others in order to help ourselves. In other words, our self-interest is enlightened.
* Selye argues that this combination has biological roots. Collaboration amongst cells promotes the survival of the individual cells and enables the total organism to adapt to the environment. Individual interests are best served by such mutual cooperation. Take the example of cancer. The cancer cell cares only for itself, feeding on other parts of its own host till it kills the host - and in so doing kills itself.
* Clearly, self-interest, without social interest, is misguided. So is social interest without self-interest. Always putting others first leads to resentment or a martyr attitude. People who believe that they are acting purely in the interests of others are also dangerous. By denying (to themselves) that their own self-interest is involved, such people may justify all types of manipulative and controlling behaviour toward others.
* Accept that you are self- and socially-interested. And recognise that your self-interest will be best served by taking into account the interests of others. In other words, practice enlightened self-interest.
What is it to be 'enlightened'?
* The word 'enlightened' has several related meanings: humanitarian - charitable, aid-giving; humanistic, liberal, internationally minded; idealistic, and visionary; and utilitarian - useful, beneficial, effective, and practical.
* Can you see how merging an enlightened attitude with one's innate self-interest can apply at all levels: to yourself, to your family, to your town or city, to your country, and to the world as a whole? Consider the effect on the world if every person acknowledged their self-interest and then practiced it in an enlightened manner. What if every country based its external and foreign policies on the humanitarian and practical principle of enlightened self-interest?

Why enlightened self-interest is important to stress management
* If human beings did not have an inherent will to protect themselves and further their own interests, they would not survive. If you don't attend to your own interests, who will? Knowing what is in your interests will help you get what is best for you and avoid what is harmful. It will keep you moving toward your goals - and ensure that your goals are the right ones for you.
*But you had better simultaneously take into account the interests of others. Getting people to have positive feelings toward you is a good idea. They will be more likely to treat you well and less likely to harm you. Contributing to their welfare will encourage them to contribute to yours. And contributing to the development and survival of the society in which you live will mean a better environment in which to pursue your interests.
* If you acknowledge that self-interest is inherent in your nature, you will feel less guilty about looking after yourself. If you acknowledge that altruistic behaviour is in your interests, you will be more likely to cooperate with others and modify any personal tendencies that get in the way of relating effectively. If you do both, everyone gains.

Developing enlightened self-interest
* Go out of your way to practice showing positive feelings towards others- gratitude, respect, trust - which in turn will arouse goodwill from them. Choose some new activities in various life areas - work, family, leisure, that will bring goodwill.
* At the same time, act assertively. Ask for what you want, say no to what you don't, and tell others (when appropriate) what you think and how you feel.
* In other words, until enlightened self-interest becomes part of you, consciously seek to get you get more of what you want, while respecting the views and feelings of the other people involved.

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