Wednesday, February 03, 2021

It Feels Good to Do Good

One of the single most depressing days of my life was when the professor in a university course I was taking called The Art of Rhetoric argued the case against altruism. He made his claim, then invited a classroom full of idealistic youths to try to prove him wrong. 

"What about the hero who runs into a burning building?" we asked.

"He knew he wouldn't be able to live with himself otherwise. Or maybe he knew it would be unbearable to lose a loved one. Or maybe he was thinking about the kudos and rewards."

"What about a mother who cares for her baby?"

"She will be arrested if she neglects it. She'll be a social outcast if she behaves otherwise. She loves the praise of being a good mother."

It went on for some time, but in the end I walked away with new doubts and cynical thoughts about humanity, myself included. After all, I'd done good deeds in my life, things that I considered altruistic. I had once painted the mud room of an elderly neighbor, but now I suspected how joyful the act had made me feel for days afterwards. I had volunteered at a community recycling center (back then there was no such thing as curbside recycling) but now I wondered if the pretty girl I'd met was really what kept me coming back. I thought of all the bugs I'd not squashed, the gifts I'd given, and the supportive words I'd offered in a new, harsh light. Is this the way the world worked? Was there really no room for just doing things to help others? Was everything ultimately a selfish act?

This thought process took me down some dark tunnels in the end. I continued to do kindnesses, to behave in ways we associate with altruism, and I still felt good about it, but now I wondered if I wasn't really being somehow selfish. I certainly wouldn't, as my rhetoric professor argued, be doing these things if they made me feel bad, if they hurt me, if doing them caused feelings of depression and anxiety. I really didn't want this to be true. I want altruism to be untainted, but no matter however much I turned it over I could no longer find good deeds to be the pure acts I'd once imagined them.

My professor didn't use scientific arguments to make his case. He simply used thought experiments to box us into corners, but had he done so he would have found support for his position there as well. Researchers talk about the "helper's high," that measurable dopamine-mediated euphoria that we feel after doing something for another person. Kinder people live longer and suffer from fewer aches and pains. The impact of kindness on overall health is greater than exercising four times week or going to church. This isn't mere correlation: acts of altruism cause these things to happen. So, it appears, my college professor was right, perhaps more than he knew.

I've often written about the kindness I've witnessed young children show towards one another, especially when adults back away, and drop the fiction that children must be taught or tricked or scolded into being kind to others. Almost every day, a child will arrive in class with a gift for me or a friend -- a personalized piece of artwork, a flower picked along the way to school, a special pebble or pinecone. Whenever a child proclaims that something is "too heavy" they can be certain to find others willing to lend their own muscles to the task. When we adults trust children to be kind, they generally are, and when they are not it is almost always because we have created an environment that encourages the opposite: too few resources or space, competitive games, overwhelming sights and sounds. This isn't to say that children don't need our support when they, naturally, explore the dark side through exclusion or mockery or even violence, but when we trust them, and they know they are trusted, they all discover that helping others is the best feeling of all. They don't care if it's selfish or not.

It no longer depresses me to think about altruism as selfish, although I no longer use that word, preferring to think of it as an aspect of "self care." It's adaptive to help one another. Why shouldn't it feel good to do good? I don't need praise or other rewards for my kind acts, because the reward is built into the act itself, unless, of course, someone is compelling me toward it with the tools of manipulation or the threat of punishment. Then I do it for the "wrong" reasons or, worse, fight against it because another of our adaptive traits is to push back against those who would try to bend us to their will, even if their goal is kindness.

I spent a great deal of my life laboring under illusions about human nature. I once believed that we were capable of voluntarily doing things that caused us to suffer at the expense of others, in the name of altruism. In other words, goodness was sacrifice. Goodness was pain. Goodness was suffering in the name of upholding a higher ideal. That professor did me a favor when he showed me that altruism is as natural to humans as talking or walking, even if that wasn't his point. 

We talk about "teaching" kindness or empathy or compassion, but most of our efforts come from this mistaken notion of goodness coming at a personal price. What if we can't teach it? What if the very act of trying to teach it, robs children of their helper's high? This is something that we each must discover for ourselves and the doesn't easily happen in top-down, competitive, carrot-and-stick, rank-and-rate models of schooling. It can only be found in environments of respect, freedom, and trust, where acts of altruism emerge from the children in their proper moments, and without the moralistic chirping of elders. We might want it to mean more. We might, as we did in the rhetoric class, want to elevate acts of kindness with mystical notions, but the very fact that it feels good to do good is Mother Nature at her best. We can't improve on that.


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