Being selfish – chapter 2

It didn’t take long. Back to this train of thought; with a different direction.

Altruism – the greater good

This is completely at the other end of the spectrum. Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. Altruism exists – apparently there is such a thing as helpers high.

But does altruism just serve narcissism? But does that even matter? If a rich celebrity gives a large sum of money to a cause, only to make they feel good about the act; hasn’t everyone won? The cause is better off financially and the celebrity has gained recognition (and a warm fuzzy feeling).  Does a teenager volunteer to genuinely help or to gain experience to stick on their CV?  Maybe a transformation occurs:

“For example, Bill Gates seemed to get into the philanthropy area later in life after he got married. In fact, I remember reading news reports stating that Microsoft and Bill Gates did little philanthropy given his and his company’s remarkable success and wealth. That all changed with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation now giving enormous amounts of money to various causes but most notably with the poor and marginalised focused on health and education. What made him change? I don’t know but whatever it was he appeared transformed by the experience (again, according to news reports). I’ve seen similar transformations in college students. They do something good, ethical, altruistic perhaps for selfish or narcissistic reasons or to just fulfil a requirement. Yet, the experience changes them for the better often making them more thoughtful, humble, and in solidarity with those who struggle.”( Psychology Today 2010)

I’m not too sure why I started writing this section, but in my (very brief) exploration of writing on the subject of selfishness, altruism kept popping up ( I guess that’s a natural occurrence, as the widely understood meaning of the word selfish, is naturally opposite to an altruistic act).

Helpers high

The ‘helpers high’ is a phenomenon that (apparently) doesn’t affect everyone. Often those who are stretched too thin, or have issues managing their own time and personal issues will end up overwhelmed if they take on more. Even if their intentions were good.

Those who can benefit from this effect can do for many reasons (this list taken and expanded on from psychology today online magazine) –

  • Chemicals – the positive energy that you feel from doing a good deed can act on your body in much the same way that exercise does, releasing endorphins that make you feel good naturally. That’s why the “rush” that good deed-doers sometimes experience after performing an altruistic act is referred to as the “helper’s high.”
  • Feeling of satisfaction (and this is where the question of selfishness begins to crop up) – just because you’re being altruistic doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t feel good about it. You’re making a difference in someone else’s life and that should make you feel good. There is no reason to try to suppress that feeling or feel guilty about it.
  • Reality check – because good deeds are often done for those who are going through a difficult time, the experience can serve to remind helpers that their own lives are actually pretty good. Sometimes, actually seeing what is on “the other side of the fence” can make you feel thankful for what you have. Ie the grass really might be greener.
  • Distraction – focusing on someone else can actually pull you away from your own self-preoccupation and your own problems. In fact, studies have found that when people with medical conditions (e.g., cancer, chronic pain) “counsel” other patients with those same conditions, the “counsellors” often experience less depression, distress, and disability. Much the same way to learn a language or properly comprehend a new skill, teaching it can help fully understand.
  • Improves physical health – research has discovered that helping others can not only improve your mental health, it also can improve your physical well-being. Studies have found that volunteers tend to live longer and often have better physical health than non-volunteers. (This one has a bunch of variables, any of which could play a key part. Anything from the physical act of interacting with humans outside of your circle, to experiencing a different set of skills/environments/challenges etc , however it is worth mentioning).

“Charity is really self-interest masquerading under the form of altruism. You say that it is very difficult to accept that there may be times when you are not honest to goodness really trying to be loving or trustful. Let me simplify it. Let’s make it as simple as possible. Let’s even make it as blunt and extreme as possible, at least to begin with. There are two types of selfishness. The first type is the one where I give myself the pleasure of pleasing myself. That’s what we generally call self-centeredness. The second is when I give myself the pleasure of pleasing others. That would be a more refined kind of selfishness.” (Anthony De Mello – an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist)

That first type of selfishness is easy to see. It doesn’t particularly go hand in hand with being discreet. The second sort of selfishness De Mello mentions, I believe is the one that (some) people may make an active decision to benefit from.  His main point on this matter was that an act of charity should be completely void of the self for it to be truly selfless. Any hint of reward (the definition of which is broad but can neatly can be boxed in the word gratification) and then the act has been tainted with selfishness.

Now there is no doubt that altruism has a biological effect. This is the exact reason the phrase ‘helpers high’ was devised. The combination of the release of endorphins and our arguable hard-wired altruistic brain (note to self – read up on Donald Pfaff) makes an altruistic act one that can have a medicinal effect.

“In Tibet we say that many illness can be cured by the one medicine of love and compassion. These qualities are the ultimate source of human happiness, and need for them lies at the very core of our being.” (Dalai Lama)

Here we can see two avenues (one more philosophical, and one more scientific) starting to relate. (Though I have only just touched on the scientific, I will revisit later).  This is an idea formed and followed by many religious philosophies, and just so happens to have rooting in science.

The Dalai Lama speaks in depth about our social interactions, developments and the limitations our self-indulgence can produce. Comparing and picking apart our differences to that of bees, which don’t have complications such as laws, technology, religion, or moral suggestion; yet they live in harmony. This is down to the laws of nature, and their instinctive sense of social responsibility. We as humans seem to be clouded, even though our capacity for compassion is much greater than that of insects, we can fall behind.

“I believe that despite the rapid advances made by civilisation in this century, the most immediate cause of our present dilemma is our undue emphasis on material development alone. We have become so engrossed in its pursuit that, without even knowing it, we have neglected to foster the most basic human needs of love, kindness, cooperation and caring. If we do not know someone or find another reason for not feeling connected with a particular individual or group, we simply ignore them. But the development of human society is based entirely on people helping each other. Once we have lost the essential humanity that is our foundation, what is the point of pursuing only material improvement.” (Dalai Lama)

If true altruism does exist, I believe that proving an act has no underlying selfish tones is a tricky undertaking. Especially in the world we find ourselves in now. Improvement and advancement are not only often our goals, but we are also surrounded by it (whether by choice or chance).

Incentives – breeding selfish people

Incentives are a tool employed by many to create a workforce that strives for better results. They put the onus on the individual, encourage competition; both with peers and within themselves.

“Professor Brennan argues disapprovingly, that economic man ‘will never perform without incentives.’ Brennan appears to desire a world in which there are no incentives, and at times seems to believe that action in the absence of incentives is the natural and, therefore, desirable state of affairs. Many managers, policy makers, and religious leaders share this view. It is inconceivable that purposeful action on the part of human beings can be viewed as anything other than responses to incentives. Indeed, the issue of incentives goes to the heart of what it means to maximize or optimize, indeed to the very core of what it means to choose. Rational individuals always choose the option that makes them better off as they see it. This is, by definition, what we mean by purposeful action—the attempt to accomplish some end. And it is the difference in (expected) well-offness between taking one action as opposed to another,  that provides incentives and results in choice. An individual takes action A over action B because he or she expects A to result in better outcomes.” (SELF-INTEREST, ALTRUISM, INCENTIVES, & AGENCY THEORY Michael C. Jensen 1994 a Harvard business school graduate)

Incentives can be positive or negative – would a person engage a task with the same effort to achieve something positive vs avoid something negative?

Jensen follows the writings of Brennan, a finance professor, who arguably is mostly absorbed with creating a more profitable, efficient economic machine. However, a person who is not driven by incentives creates a better employee. A person who acts not for a reward or to avoid punishment will surely act and perform in a more efficient way : the abolition of incentives and the engagement of perfect agents (‘someone who makes decisions with no concern for his or her own preferences, but only for those of another, including an employer or principal.’)

By definition a perfect agent is truly altruistic? I don’t think so – a perfect agent will go to great lengths to rise above our own self involvement to contribute to the greater good of the corporation – this is more likely to happen if that person holds more responsibly.  An altruistic person does not make a perfect agent. Altruism has an air of the arbitrary; a perfect agent finds a connection between their own self-interest and the welfare of the organisation.

How do employers of big firms motivate their employees – with bonuses; cash or otherwise (sometimes the otherwise is where the power is held). This feeds into the fact that people (mostly) put themselves before others, their own self-interest is more important than the functionality of the organisation. Incentives are used with higher up employees – managers etc, this employs a more interesting approach – as people with more responsibility have more significant decisions to make, basically; more is at stake. The existence of incentives creates an environment where an individual isn’t afraid to make a hard choice.

“Optimal decisions often meet with opposition and retribution from colleagues, employees, communities, policy makers, regulators, and others—thereby providing managers with incentives to forsake them. To increase the chances that managers will take the best actions possible, we must ensure that the incentives (that is, the tradeoffs) they face encourage them to move in the correct direction.” (More Jensen)

The big fat other side of this is small time companies: non – profit organisations; volunteer driven projects; charities; community enterprises. Surely the ‘helpers high’ I touched upon earlier only reaches so far; that being – where energy spent outweighs the fuzziness one can gain.

I have rambled on for a while now. Again, this will be revisited. Maybe when I have read some mind boggling medical journals. Any opinions and discussions are welcomed.


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