SCIENCE: The Bright Side Of Doing Good
This is a two-part series as altruism creates powerful emotions. These emotions can be a motivating factor both good and ill. In this post I’ll introduce the bright side of altruism, and in the next, I’ll introduce the negative side of altruism.
Volunteers wanted is a calling card nearly in every corner of society. You can volunteer to serve society in so many ways, but does it do some physical and mental good? According to summary paper, Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to be Good by Stephen Post (PDF), yes. But there is a caveat to this.
Volunteering with the intention to help works if two things are accounted for:
- There is a sense of usefulness and the volunteer can see how their efforts are helping
- The act of volunteering isn’t too taxing on the volunteer for too long.
Furthermore, when people feel good, they also tend to think more creatively, integratively, are more flexible, and are more open to information (Fredrickson, 2003) (PDF).
Why do we do this?
Turns out that this behaviour is rooted in evolutionary psychology. When we are within groups it feeds the “us versus them” competition. We evolved to cooperate with our groups, which provides an advantage to the in group while being a disadvantage to all other groups.
In other words, this reinforces the tribe mentality we find so prevalent in tribal societies as well as today’s parallels. Putnam (2001) discusses the research on bushmen and how they practise ecological altruism. However, the term they use is “social capital,” and the concept is more akin to helping someone without expecting payment then, but later on down the road asking them for help. They will feel social pressure to help you in return.
There are many aspects of how we use our social capital. Networking for job hunting, canvassing for political campaigns, the kindness of a neighbour making sure our stuff is safe while we are gone, and many more aspects to daily life.
When we do good, we grow together.
At a time when society is fragmenting, there is a glue that can help bring people together. And that is simply helping one another without expecting anything in return. This could be something as simple as picking up a dropped item and handing it back or as complicated as you want to make it to truly give back to a community.
The key seems to be that it has to be something that you want to do, gives the recipient a result you can see or feel, and doesn’t ask too much of the person giving their time and efforts away. So if you ask for a volunteer, make sure you hit these two requirements or it’ll do more harm than good for your cause and relationship with people.
Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American culture. New York: Simon & Schuster.