I believe there is a core to every person’s personality.
An unchangeable part of our character that carries over through the different seasons of our lives. While we might change how we dress or talk or maybe even act, this core part of us remains the same.
Part of my core character is that I am selfish. Always have been, likely always will be. As the controversial Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens once said:
I was never the kid passing out pizza slices at birthday parties. I was the one counting slices, making sure that I got my fair share and angling for how I could get more.
I do not admit my selfishness proudly, merely factually.
My life right now, the life of the wandering nomad, is built around me. I have no kids or spouse or pet to consider. I live far from my family, physically removing me from the day-to-day and week-to-week commitments that come with being a part of any family. My life revolves around me and my wants. I go where I want, when I want. If I want to do something, I do it. If I don’t, I don’t.
Earlier this year, I came to the conclusion that my selfishness was a major cause for my unhappiness.
My selfishness caused me to lose a woman that I loved just about as much as I have loved anyone ever. It cost me the best job I ever had. It isolated me from people. It propelled me inward, into the depths of my own head.
I was depressed, and my selfishness was part of the reason why.
So I decided to make a conscious effort to try to live less selfishly. I knew had the selfish part down. Now I needed to learn how to become that which I was not.
Here are a few ways that I worked to train myself to step outside of my own head and put others before me. But before we get to the list, I want to make a couple quick editorial notes:
- I know that it is selfish for me to purposely do unselfish acts in order to make myself happier. But on some level, we are all selfish, solitary creatures and our actions will be prompted by our own needs. If the worst thing I do this month is deliberately look for ways to put others before myself so that I can find happiness, I am cool with that.
- I purposely avoided any actions involving money. While I know that money is important and something that a lot of people need, I also think that any generous act involving money is a quick fix that doesn’t require much thought. The goal here was to get myself into the habit of consciously thinking of others before myself. So while leaving a nice tip or picking up the dinner check for a group of friends is a very generous and selfless thing to do, they are both also quick actions that don’t require much conscious thought or action.
- I have deliberately excluded volunteering from this list. I did this for a couple reasons:
- It’s the most obvious answer. I think it is quite clear to just about everyone that reads this post that one of the most unselfish things you can do is give yourself. For the sake of presenting new ideas, I wanted to steer away from volunteering. If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether you should volunteer, let me be the first to tell you that, yes, you should.
- Volunteering opportunities can be time-consuming, difficult to fit into a busy calendar and dependent on outside organizations. I wanted to focus on actions that I could control, implement quickly and that weren’t dependent on whether or not the local soup kitchen decided to host the Thanksgiving potluck or not.
Ok. Editorial note over. Let’s get to it.
1. Foster an animal
About six weeks ago, two friends approached me about the possibility of my watching a street dog that they had been looking after. We were in Sayulita, Mexico, a small beach pueblo along the Pacific Ocean that has no shortage of street dogs. My friends were headed to Bali, which meant that they wouldn’t be able to watch Gary anymore.
Named Gary after SpongeBob Squarepants’ mindless pet, Gary is not a dog that was going to make it long-term on the streets. He was all heart and no brains. All love and no fight. He ran from conflict faster than just about any dog I had ever seen.
My friends in Sayulita had found a family in Canada that wanted to to adopt Gary, but they were waiting for the weather to cool down so that it would be safe for Gary to fly in the cargo hold of an airplane.
I reluctantly agreed, thinking that the arrangement would be for a week or two. I ended up having the Gar-Bear for more than a month.
Gary gave me something to think about besides myself.
I had to schedule my days and nights around making sure I got home to let him out. I had to make time each morning to take him to the beach to play. I had to feed him and give him water and clean up his cuts after he would run away get his ass kicked by other dogs on the street.
There were times that Gary was an inconvenience. He was a street dog at heart and liked to roam, which meant there were times when I would spend 30 minutes just trying to corral him into my apartment. Gary also liked to eat trash, which meant I spent lots of time picking up trash from random bags Gary tore into.
A lot of my time with Gary that was all about him. About me cleaning him or cleaning up after him or feeding him or helping him to make sure that he was good.
But there was also a lot about my time with Gary that brought me joy. When I would lay down at night to read, I had a new cuddle buddy:
I had someone to play fetch with at the beach. I met people because of Gary. Women loved him. Kids’ faces lit up when they threw a stick down the beach and Gary would sprint after it.
There are animals all over who could use some love. Someone to look after them and give them shelter and food while a better situation waits to present itself. Fostering an animal is a great temporary way to give yourself something that is beyond you.
Be the listener you want to hear. This is the mantra I have written into my journal each day.
This might seem like a silly tip, and an easy thing to do, but you’d be surprised. In fact, I challenge you to have a conversation with someone where you go 15 minutes without:
a) Checking your phone (you aren’t listening when you do this)
b) Interjecting with a comment that is about you, your life or something that happened to you. Super-duper bonus points if you don’t use the word “I”
We are, at least in the United States, in the midst of time when the people in our country are just about as unhappy as they have been in more than 40 years.
Don’t believe me?
Here is a chart from the 2019 World Happiness Report tracking general happiness among US adults:
As you can see, things are trending downwards.
And if we follow the World Health Organization’s classification that depression and unhappiness are not medical conditions, but rather an indicator of unmet needs, I would argue that an un-met need for a lot of people is having someone to listen to them.
Smartphones are obliterating active listening skills. They give us an immediate out, an instant place to go when we are bored or having a conversation that doesn’t focus on what we want to talk about.
There is nothing more important to each of us than the story of our life. It is the most important story we will ever know. And there is nothing more satisfying than when we share our story with someone who is actually interested and actively hearing what we have to say.
Be the listener you want to hear. It’s just about the most selfless thing you can do.
For those of you out of practice when it comes to listening, here are some tips:
- Shut up. Let the person you are talking with fill the silent gaps. When you feel the need to talk, don’t.
- Ask follow-up questions. People usually have a lot to say, but they need to be encouraged to do so. If your initial probe is met with a one line answer, start again. Asking questions that follow up a story or a comment are a great way to encourage people to open up.
- Sometimes, the thing that someone really wants to talk about will be mentioned in an off-hand comment, something like “And then they did some really fucked up shit, and I had to….” Ask follow-up questions to these off-hand comments. Ask what the fucked-up thing was. These are important parts to this person’s story. It is not rude to ask someone personal questions. If someone doesn’t want to tell you something, they won’t. But most people will want to. Vocalizing what happens to us is a great way to process. Think about how you feel when something big / awful / impactful happens to you. You want to talk about it. To work shit out. Other people do too.
- Turn your phone off. You can’t check it if it’s not on…
3. Serve Yourself Last
I love to eat. Like really love to eat.
As soon as I finish one meal, I immediately begin thinking about what my next will be. I eat enthusiastically and voraciously. Anyone who knows me knows this. One thing that I have been working on doing (strong emphasis on the working on) is to make a conscious effort to fill my plate or cup last.
I have a friend Joel, who, while selfish in his own ways, is also one of the most thoughtful and considerate people I know.
Joel and I recently went to dinner at a delicious Thai restaurant with 13 other people. As often happens at Thai restaurants, we ordered numerous dishes for everyone to share.
I noticed that Joel took the time to serve everyone around him and make sure everyone else got to try the entrees that were being passed around before he served himself. If we ran out of a particular dish and someone hadn’t tried it, he was quick to order another one.
In contrast to the rest of us, who ate like famished savages, Joel’s approach seemed to be just about the most selfless thing to do at the time.
Everyone likes to eat. It is not only essential to survival, but it is a very enjoyable thing for most people. Especially when the food and wine are good. Serve others before yourself. It is a good mental check to remind yourself to put others before you.
4. Give Compliments
This is an easy one and it isn’t.
Everyone loves a compliment. As author Dale Carnegie wrote in his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People:
“In our interpersonal relationships we should never forget that all our associates are human beings and hunger for appreciation. It is the legal tender that all souls enjoy.”
But nobody likes to feel babied or as if someone is kissing their ass just to make them feel good.
Compliments only work when they come from a place of purity. When they are not contrived. When they are something you actually feel.
Have you ever noticed something you liked about someone — their shoes, their jacket, the way they danced, how they interacted with their kids — and not said anything because you were too shy?
Of course you have. We all have.
These are the compliments you need to give. Even if it means talking to a complete stranger. Even if it means saying something that might not be normal for you to say to someone you have just met. Something like, “Wow, you look really beautiful in that dress.”
It does not matter how embarrassed you feel or how shy you are. Remember, this is not about you. This is about the other person.
What’s nice is that compliment giving is a Maslov-esque trick that will help get you to focus outwardly. Here’s how it works:
Most of the time, when you give someone a compliment, they will respond with a smile. And that smile is going to make you feel you good. It’s going to remind you that that’s what we are all here for, to connect with one another. And since it felt good, and since we all like to feel good, your brain is going to sub-consciously search for more compliments so that it can get more smiles and connect some more. And in your search for compliments, your focus will move outward, and away from yourself, which will help you to think about others and connect with other people even more.
5. Give Up Control
Now, before I get into this last one, I know there are a lot of people out there who need control of their world in order to survive. In order to help them recover, cope with or get over a particularly traumatic experience.
I am not talking to those people here. If you need to micromanage your day in order to make it through the day, you go ahead and control your world as you need to.
For everyone else… a great indicator for selfishness is control.
Selfish people like to be in control.
They like to make the plans and know the plans and have the ability to adjust the plans because then they can make sure that the plans, whatever they may be, will include what they want to do. Or that the plans will fit within a schedule that they had planned out.
I know this because this is what I do.
Let go of your plans. Forget your routine or what you normally do or what wanted to do or whatever you had planned in your mind.
Let the group decide. Let other people take the lead. Ride that wave and see where it takes you.
Even if the group you are with wants to do something that throws your personal routine off or is something you really don’t want to do, go with it anyway.
Don’t be the one to balk or interject or try to change the plans.
Know that if an option is on the table, at least one person in the group wants to do that thing and that this is a great opportunity to be there for that person to help them enjoy what they want to do.
You do not always need to volunteer for strangers in order to give yourself. You can give yourself to your friends and loved ones simply by being there to do the things that they want to do, even when you don’t want to do them.
I once read that “if you are unhappy, it is likely because you are thinking about yourself.”
I think that this is just about the most true thing that I have ever read when it comes to happiness. Practicing selflessness is not only a great way to give to others, it is also a fabulous way to connect, step outside of your own head and feel better.
If you are feeling unhappy or as if something is missing from your life, try focusing your energy outward instead of inward. Find ways to selflessly give yourself to other people. Go connect.
It’s what we evolved to do.
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