What does "thinking of others" actually mean?
Awareness of Self and Others
Thinking of others is no doubt linked to awareness of others. How can you think of others if you are not aware of their needs? And if you are aware, how far will you go to satisfy their needs over yours?
Also, would you be happier in a room full of self-centered types or a room full of people trying to think of each other all the time?
Which room would lead to madness first?
What if it wasn't a room but a lifeboat?
And what if you were not you but a person who had lived on the streets for most of your life in a state of poverty?
Your situation might dictate what's best but where should we draw the line and what creates the best life or best society?
If you believe we follow pleasure and try to avoid pain and believe we have to look after Number One first, then you would be drawing the line pretty quickly but if you have a belief system that tells you to "defer gratification of self for the common good or for long-term gains or to make this planet more decent" you might endure the pain associated with "thinking of others" for longer.
It has long term benefits but for whom. You or them or both?
You might make the effort to go the extra mile in the belief eveyone will be better off and besides, you will (or think you will) come out of it looking better in the eyes of others and yourself and that will be of definite benefit to you.
Winners think of others, you might say, losers are selfish and selfish has short-lived gains and are bad company let alone society.
Everyone feels some sense of outrage over selfish behaviour - we are afterall social beings - but not everyone agrees on what selfish behaviour is.
Not being selfish used to be called having a conscience - constantly judging yourself against a standard of good behaviour or not doing the selfish thing because you might be affecting others in an adverse way, including yourself. In this state of things, everyone carries a measure of self-sacrifice in their behaviour.
The goal was to act, or work towards some measure of selflessness for a utopian ideal - the afterlife, Heaven, the environment, a better world. I suppose this kind of thing could also turn into a competition so it wasn't all selfless.
An unstated thought: "I'm more selfess than you!" is akin to thinking, "I'm better than you," which doesn't seem very selfless at all.
The other problem with this orientation based on conscience was that it could be judgemental and feel very restrictive so people's real selves had to go underground because being true to yourself could seem wrong when it wasn't at all by the standards of another or more enlightened society.
Witches used be burned at the stake.
The sixties put a stop to a lot of this as society raced to liberate
everyone in reaction to people being imprisoned by a conscience created by the dominant values. You might find yourself in a state of anxiety over constantly denying and judging yourself. The long term effects could be harmful and were unjustified.
But how far should we let self-serving behaviour take-over?
The Ancient Greeks had a concept of the Golden Mean which is relevant here.
When it comes to doing things for self or others, being extreme either way is not the ideal but rather, the Golden Mean suggests what we should be doing is finding a middle path or getting the measure right between the extremes.
Scylla and Charybdis were the ancient rocks you needed to navigate your boat between. Erring either way would wreck your boat and was dangerous.
Turning to personal relationships and the question of what to teach kids.
Imagine the following 3 scenarios.
Two people both extremely self-centered.
Two people both extremely other-centered.
Two people one who serves others, the other self-serving.
Which is better or works best?
You might think the two people other-centered is the healthiest option and you might be right but if the two extremely self-centered people love the same things in life and are very compatible their self-love will be of service to each other with little pain attached.
If you find what you love you may, in other words, perform the greatest service to others.
The third alternative might be rather unhealthy but everyone likes to be surrounded by people ministering to their needs or fantasizes about it - don't they? It's like a goal people work towards: to be treated like a King, Queen, celeb or Rock Star where others look after you and feed you grapes etc... while you relax all day lapping it up.
O.K. I'm not a King (except in my own lunchbox at work perhaps!) and probably not too many Kings, Queens, Rock Stars or Celebs are reading this...
Personally, I think two people other-centered works very well if combined with self-love and self-acceptance or the attempt to support and reach these states.
In conclusion there is a place for it all - Self and other."No man [or woman] is an island, entire of him[ or her]self" as John Donne said.
The point is going too far either way may lead to undesirable outcomes and perhaps being true to yourself is the number one goal as then service to others comes quite naturally.