You see an old man struggling with the weight of the bags that he is carrying. Immediately, you invoke your inner Superman and rush to help him. One might think that such acts of kindness are purely selfless. However, when digging deeper it is clear that there is a degree of selfishness in altruism. Some go as far as saying that altruism is an illusion. So what is there to gain when helping others?
1. Neurochemical high
Would we still be generous, if generosity was not accompanied by a good feeling about ourselves? As social beings, we have evolved in such a way that neurotransmitters which lead to feelings of self-satisfaction and fulfilment are released when being altruistic towards our peers.
2. Relief of physiological distress
Bearing witness to the suffering of others can be tormenting (thank you empathy!). Helping the person who is suffering may be a way to relieve our own distress and guilt when in such situations.
3. Physical and mental health
The positive emotions that come hand in hand with kindness boost our physical well-being, reduce stress, fight depression and help our sense of purpose. In fact, being kind helps us solidify our confidence and builds our positive self-identity.
4. Social status
Being perceived as the ‘good guy’, apart from being a secret desire of many, automatically improves our social position and this is turn improves our relationships.
Being Mr/Ms Loved-by-all will put you in a position of greater influence and others are more likely to help you when roles are reversed. Basically, the more you give, the more you get back. I call it collecting karma points for later.
Helping others can be a way to delude ourselves with a sense of power and control. A cheap psychological trick for the weak, as Nietzsche points out.
The cruel realisation that we are intrinsically programmed to be selfish by doing noble gestures may not be what you want to hear, especially if you have been doing random acts of kindness to note on What Made Me Happy Today. Trust me, though. It is not that bad, it all depends on how you look at things.
Being generally defined as doing something without the consideration of others, being selfish is not equivalent to not being selfless. If an action cannot be completely selfless it does not mean that it is performed without the taking into account how it affects other individuals. Nor is selfishness equivalent to self-care. We are responsible for our own well-being. Therefore, selfish or not, we have tobe kind and compassionate as part of our pursuit of happiness. If you are a glass-half-full kind of person, you can see this as a win-win situation: the most effective way to both be happy ourselves and make others happy, is to be kind to others. It is an endless cycle of good vibes.
The issues arises when kindness becomes an instrument to fuel personal ego and to cancel both the personal feeling of guilt and social pressure, to do and be good. If the cheque written to the local NGOs at Christmas time is the annual payment for the Good Person subscription the act (pun intended) is just theatrical and superficial. On the other hand, kindness should be intrinsically an endeavour performed for its positive ripples at the receiver’s end. That is when you are winning at life!
Whether your biochemical high is the driving force or the happy consequence of your Samaritan swag I believe that being aware of the fine line separating self-gratification and self-appreciation is an important step in self-development.
So next time you hold open a door for someone, check your selfless-o-meter and see where you stand!