Enlightened Self-Interest: Where You and Others All Win

By Rachel Puryear

If you are at all an empathic person, you are familiar with the ongoing dilemma in life of balancing your own needs and interests against the needs and interests of others. You have wondered exactly where the line is between drawing boundaries and being assertive on the one hand, versus being kind and generous on the other. You want to do both, but they can sometimes seem at odds with one another – unless, that is, you can figure out ways in life to invoke an enlightened self-interest. This is also known as a win-win.

Silhouettes of a group of people all standing on a mountain top at sunset, and all celebrating and waving their hands in the air.

What Is Enlightened Self-Interest?

Enlightened self-interest is about creating, essentially, win-win situations. It’s an art, rather than a science. It’s about giving people a better deal than they would have had without you, and where you also benefit from the arrangement.

Accordingly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating enlightened self-interest types of solutions in life. Rather, it is a principle to cultivate, practice, and develop.

The Limits of Pure Self-Interest

Have you ever heard of – or played – the ultimatum game? It’s also popularly used in economic experiments. Basically, two people are paired, and one person is given a sum of money. Let’s say it’s $100. The person given the money must decide how to split it with the other person. If the other person accepts the proposed split, each person keeps the money according to that proposal. If the other person rejects the proposed split, then neither person gets any of the money. Each party knows how it works in advance. Accordingly, the person proposing the split must make a proposal that will likely be acceptable to the other person, rather than simply getting greedy.

Sometimes, people will reject a split that’s overly stingy towards them, even if it means they also come away with less money. The more uneven the proposed split is, the more likely it will be rejected. For instance, people will usually accept a 50/50 split. But a 90/10 split tends to be rejected, even though it means the person rejecting it loses out on $10 and instead gets nothing. People will act against their own self-interest to punish someone else’s greed, rather than reward the greed for a marginal benefit to themselves.

What Are the Benefits of Using Enlightened Self-Interest?

Acting in ways that benefit others significantly as well as yourself comes with lots of advantages. Things like not having to worry so much about others being out to get you for revenge – not only are people less likely to want to take you down in the first place, but even if someone tries to do so, there are others around you who will come to your defense and protect you. This is because they want to keep on getting the benefits that you provide them, because they know they have it good in you – as opposed to scenarios where they instead root for your enemies, because they want to see you finally pay for selfish misdeeds against them.

How Can You Exercise More Enlightened Self-Interest?

Naturally, it depends upon you, and the circumstances. That’s why it’s an art instead of a science – because it requires a little creative thinking. However, there are some examples.

A company could develop more environmentally friendly practices, as a means of improving their reputation amongst the public, and thereby increase sales and profits.

In interpersonal relationships, being there for loved ones and treating them kindly increases the odds that at least some of them will also do the same for you, when you need others. Odds are better, of course, if you practice this with people who are themselves givers; or at least, who are not just takers.

By cleaning up after ourselves in public places, like a park or beach, we contribute our small part towards having public places that are enjoyable and fun to visit.

As a famous example, the CEO of a well-known company oversaw record profits after paying all employees a comfortable living. No one complained about the company being part of the 1%, because all the people working for them were also benefitting substantially from the situation. Employee loyalty soared, too, and job applications flooded in.

How can you create more enlightened self-interest in your own life? The possibilities are endless. Feel free to leave your own examples in the comments below!


Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to exercising more enlightened self-interest, of course! If you enjoyed this content and want to see more of it, please hit “like” and subscribe, if you do not do so already. xoxo

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