It is not inherently bad to look out for yourself and your own interests. How many times have you heard that you have to “be a better friend to yourself” or to “take care of yourself?” If you can’t help yourself, then how can you help others out? The key thing to keep in mind with being individualistic is that while it can help you as a person, you should always remember that it does not mean neglecting, hurting, or disadvantaging others in the process. You can be an individualistic person but that does not excuse selfish or amoral behavior at all.
I would argue that hyper-individualism has become more and more common in our society and has led to people being taken advantage of, scammed, lied to, or otherwise mistreated because they had someone take advantage of them because they were acting in their own interest but without regards for others who were affected. If I had to give my own definition of what distinguishes hyper-individualism from individualism is that in the former, you are looking out for yourself only without regards for others or you are looking out for yourself even if it may cause other people to be negatively affected by your focus on individualistic behavior.
While it is okay in my view to strive to achieve your own goals, seek out a better life, find your own path, and to not be dependent on others if you can afford to do so. It is not okay to hurt others in the process by robbing them of their own goals, their own chance at seeking a better life, and even preventing them from building a community where the individual takes a back seat to the interests of a group.
I find that hyper-individualism is similar to a ‘dog eat dog’ kind of world where everybody is on their own all the time, there is limited or no support if you fall on tough times, and where communal living or community-building is sacrificed for individual power seeking, wealth gaining, or prestige building. Caring about oneself alone and not others at all or not caring if your own goals, success, and overall happiness may put others in a bad place can also fall under what hyper individualism would be to me.
I believe that most people cannot be hyper individualistic because since the early days of our species, we could not live on our own without the support of a tribe, group, or a small community. Everybody had their own individual wants, desires, or needs, but we worked together to achieve those needs by catering to our individual strengths. Each person brought something unique or useful to the larger group and that is where individualism can play a healthy role within a community. If you can hunt, you can provide food to yourself, yes, but also to others if you are good at what you do. If you can fish, you can fish enough to help yourself but also for others in the tribe too. The same could be said for cooking, cleaning, protecting livestock, building shelter, etc.
This kind of individualism where we express ourselves in what we do best and how we can contribute meaningfully to a larger group, community, or society helps to make individualism a powerful force, often for good. Where hyper-individualism goes wrong is where you only look out for yourself and don’t share with anybody else or lend a helping hand with your skills and talents. It is not good to hoard or be greedy but that is what hyper individualistic behavior is based around and the disturbing thing to remember is that it seems to be encouraged more and more by our popular culture.
Think about the advertising and marketing messages we often receive: do they cater to your needs or to the needs of a group? When society is largely telling you to constantly be going after the money, the cars, the clothes, and the fancy mansions, this kind of behavior often leads to hyper-individualism. Sadly, we don’t hear about how we can use our skills to help others or to volunteer to use our resources for a shared good or effort. It is up to us to resist hyper individualistic behavior as much as possible.
Hyper-individualism may make that person feel good at first, but it is an empty feeling especially if they are not contributing anything meaningful to the larger society. Yes, you were able to buy a nice car, a flashy television, and an expensive house, but while that’s good for you and your own skills and abilities, is that all there is to your life? For a few of us, maybe that’s good enough, but I believe that we feel happiest and most fulfilled when we not only share our talents with the world, but we use those talents to also better the world in some way.
Individualistic societies and more community-focused societies can both be wealthy, happy, and productive, but if you go to the extremes of individualism or to communism, to state the obvious, societies will often crater in on themselves and cease to function well. I like to think that the best societies in our world are those that recognize, encourage, and foster individual talent but to use that talent to create a better society and to make sure that success while rewarded financially or otherwise, is also meant to help others receive a helping hand up so they too can also succeed and pursue their individual dreams and goals.
My analogy for hyper-individualism is if you’re in a rowboat and you have six people in the boat, and we’re all meant to row to get to the shore. Problems can start to arise when you have five people rowing in sync together and starting to move the boat faster and faster to the shore. However, if that sixth person does not row at all because he or she does not want to or if they want to row back out to sea, all six people as a result are going to suffer together because of that one person’s hyper-individualism.
Think of that rowboat of six people like a society of a million or a billion people. If you have one person or a few people ‘rowing’ against the others and hurting the total society as a result, the problems even a few people can cause would affect everyone in that boat or in the society negatively. Let’s all remember that we all rise or fall together and that while individual success, wealth, and prestige, is admirable to achieve, it is not everything in life and we are judged not just by our own merits but by our character and our values as well in society.