The selfish mind wants everything for itself. It pursues pleasures, seeks more material goods, more food, more attention, and more recognition for its own gain. Happiness, the selfish mind tells itself, is having more and enjoying more. Easy leisure is the number one desire, especially when combined with plush and fancy material possessions that signal our success and value to others.
The selfish mind errors. Happiness and real pleasure do not come from simple material possessions. Happiness comes from our interactions with others, particularly when we do something for others that makes them better off, not when we do something that only makes ourselves better off.
Seneca recognized this in Rome during the first century. In Letters from a Stoic he writes, “Happy is he man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!”
We are social creatures who evolved and grew to take over the planet in groups. We started out in small social tribes, and from there have built massive metropolises. We survive and are dominant because of our social nature, and within that social nature we have evolved to be altruistic toward at least our closest family members and friends. Individually we are vulnerable and limited, but when we come together, we can quite literally move mountains.
Cultures across the planet vary in the degree to which they recognize the importance of our social connectedness. Some cultures hold self sacrifices for the greater good at the heart of society, and some cultures hold the family unit as central, while only really recognizing social cohesion on special holidays. Nevertheless, anyplace we look we can see that selfish accumulation does not lead to happiness the way that helping others does.
It is interesting that we can derive so much happiness from helping other people and trying to be a role model and someone that brings out the best in others. We seem to get a stronger, more deep, and more lasting sense of happiness and accomplishment when we know that we are doing something meaningful for other people rather than when we just pursue our own self-interest. For two thousand years, and surely before Seneca wrote them down, his words have remained true, and we would benefit in the United States if we remembered to do as much for others as we try to do for ourselves.