Significance of the term ‘selfish’

During a conversation with a friend the other day, we stumbled upon the term, ‘selfish’. Being angry and upset at that time, I ended up calling her selfish but later that day, I began to ponder on the origin of the term and the meaning associated with it. It is said that the term, selfish did not exist in the English dictionary until the late 1640s and there wasn’t a word similar to ‘self’ until then either (2001). Although, such behaviours can be accounted for and were also condemned before 1640s, the lack of such a word in the dictionaries made me question its mere existence and value.

You see, we all are born selfish, aren’t we? It’s a basic human instinct, to survive. Similar selfish behavioural traits can be found everywhere throughout the animal kingdom and since we belong to the same kingdom, in us. But then why is it condemned so much? When and how did the idea of being selfish turn into a problem? I think the answer or one of the possible answer lies in the creation of civilizations.

The idea of civilizations was brought together by the construct of survival through unity. People started to realise the positives of living in harmony with each other and helping each other survive in contrast to survival of the fittest. That meant, not being selfish and giving into our natural, primal animal instincts. We have all heard our parents say at some point, ‘learn good manners’ or ‘learn to talk softly and politely’. If we really are all the superior species and learnt to survive in harmony, then why is it so hard for us to be nice and humble to each other?

Because it is hard to re-write our natural instincts even when we are not fighting for our survival anymore. Even when we are in abundance, it is hard to let go of our natural instincts. But then comes the question of us being the superior species. If we really are superior, how can we not see that we are hurting someone else or being inhuman or simply extremely selfish for that matter? Doesn’t it come down to a matter of being aware, knowing what is wrong and what’s right? To consciously remind ourselves that there is no need for us to keep our survival insticts intact but instead to help our species remain alive?

The society and its rules help us survive together, in a group, as one entity to protect ourselves from external threats. And it is alright to be selfish at times because we can’t serve others if we aren’t breathing to serve at all! It is a matter of being aware of the selfishness that we show and the need for us to show mercy, compassion and love towards the creatures of our same species. It has been found that a human only needs enough to fulfill his need for survival, anything more than that is just a desire and a selfish act and nothing more. By showing compassion, mercy, sympathy and love, we are only helping our species progress further and helping each other really be superior to other species rather than going downhill and back to being animals. The choice is always conscious and always ours.

Being selfish is part of being human. Embrace it, don’t fight it! And then use this awareness to re-write your brain’s primal instincts to feel compassion, love, mercy and sympathy towards other humans! Let us all create a better world to live in!


Note: Some of the ideas mentioned here were that of my dear friend who wishes to be anonymous.





Manson, M (2016). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. HarperCollins Publisher.

Sampson, G (2001). Ask a Linguistic: Message Details [Online]. Available at:





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