“Altruism is innate, but it's not instinctual. Everybody's wired for it, but a switch has to be flipped.” - David Rakoff
Are you out there doing greater good in the world? The debate rages on as to whether humans are by default selfish or cooperative. Altruism, however, does exist, even in cases where it puts the altruistic person’s life in danger, which runs counter to evolutionary theory.
However, just because altruism doesn’t always seem to have direct payoff, doesn’t mean the do-gooder is not rewarded many times over. It turns out we do kind things to encourage meritocracy and bring equality and balance to an unfair seeming world. This Psychology About.com article, What is Altruism, also claims we do it to maintain social norms, better our chance of reciprocity of kindness, or help relieve guilt or fear of punishment.
Neuroscientists and economists at the University of Oregon, Eugene, also found that some people seem hard wired for altruism. All subjects experienced positive feelings, and had pleasure centers of their brain stimulated, after donating money to a food bank. But extremely altruistic subjects placed in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines had brain pleasure zones light up after giving money, even more so than when receiving it. Therefore it was no surprise to see they donated twice as much money as the control subjects.
So, if your sister has three volunteer gigs and tithes 15% of her income, while you write write a few charities a check twice a year, try not to feel too guilty. Perhaps she is a hard-wired altruist.
Ultimately, altruists and altruism are not just one thing. We have different motivations for doing good, and yes, different pay offs. Many acts of kindness may be primarily —or just partly—motivated by self-interest. But, regardless, we all benefit in some way from being altruistic and the world benefits as well.
This Psychology Today article on altruism says it best. “Rather than being unnatural, altruism is an expression of our most fundamental nature—that of connectedness.”
Considering this, when it’s time to give back, give back in a way that most rewards your own pleasure centers and know that it’s okay, in fact quite natural, to think of what you want and gain from doing good work. Those on the receiving end of kindness rarely care what you got out of the deal.
So ask yourself, what does good and goodness mean to you? What kind of charitable kindness resonates with your desires? Are you after deeper social connection, respect from mentoring, new experiences and greater awareness? And finally, what are your unique gifts that will do the most good and give the most back to you out there in the world?
In the end, it doesn’t matter why you do good in the world. Leave defining the nature of altruism to the scientists. Get out there, light up brain reward centers and make your community and your life better.