An Ode to the Selfish Altruist
Rampant violence; unregulated industrial pollution; systemic racism; widespread malnutrition; unchecked poverty; mental illness. I could go on listing the seemingly countless issues plaguing this world of ours and that alone would contribute enough words for this to be deemed a sizable article.
As we are incessantly told, there is an endless swath of causes that call for our advocacy, marginalized peoples that warrant our attention, and animal habitats that deserve our care. All of these things and more are competing for our attention through any channels imaginable: advertising campaigns, guilt-tripping documentaries, disruptive volunteers on the streets donned in red overalls, this blog? An hour of your already pressed time, a morsel of your home-cooked food, a chunk of your hard-earned money.
We already wish for twice the hours in a day -- between juggling our multiple jobs and familial/academic obligations. Do we really deserve to be labeled as narcissists if the only volunteering we ever get done is giving the ambulance right of way and the occasional coin toss to a panhandler? Considering the ticker tape barrage of issues facing the world, how much can we really help anyway?
Maybe we already do our part by means of gainful employment and taxes. And taking into account those exorbitant taxes, why haven’t the governments been able to succeed? If with all their might and resources, even they can’t seem to resolve these crises, what good is a measly lone ranger such as myself? Or the activists? Isn’t this supposed to be their job?
Most of all, on a far more fundamental level, we live in an independent society where individuals are free to make their choices, so why should I feel guilty about spending on myself and my loved ones? Do I really have a duty to volunteer, a moral obligation to always be thinking about those less fortunate than myself, even when there seem so many more fortunate than me?
To all that, I say it does not matter. It is of little consequence whether or not you are morally obliged to do any of those things; you should do them anyway.
Why? For yourself. Because it’s cleansing for the soul, good for the heart, better for the mind.
To be blatantly honest, many of my own forays into the world of volunteering have been spurred by selfish desires. I found that volunteering my time to meaningful causes somehow gave rise to a whole broth of positive, self-love evoking feelings. Regardless of how stacked in a mountain of shit my life was, I could always go to the local soup kitchen to, along with the skin off of potatoes, peel away a layer or two of self-loathing.
There was, unfortunately, a dark and salient caveat to my master plan, however. For far too long, I feared that all of my altruistic efforts were marred by their selfish underpinnings, that they counted for nothing. I was doing this for me, not for them. How did that make me a good person? The cognitive dissonance was eating away at me.
Until one day finally, I asked myself; so what? Why must self-good and good-done-unto-others be mutually exclusive? It would take nothing away from the wrinkled smiles on the faces of the elders I would visit -- they were always more than pleased to have company, paying little regard for its intentions. If anything, by way of the utilitarian argument I was doing double the good by creating positivity in others as well as in myself! The best of both worlds was no longer a pipe dream.
Any further doubts that were left withstanding began to melt away when I realized that volunteering my time had given rise to a cyclical habit of giving back to society. The promise of self-satisfaction would be the cue to motivate me to go volunteer in the first place, the routine would be the act of volunteering itself, and the reward would be whatever little impact I had been able to create as an individual.
In theory, this all made sense, but somehow it still did not entirely pacify my concerns. At the same time, I could not let it stop me from doing good. For what felt like an eternity, I assumed that I alone was trapped in this impasse. As I still carried some remnants of shame from my feelings of selfishness, I remained hesitant to broach the topic with anyone else.
When I finally did, I was delighted to find that there were other volunteers, who shared these thoughts and insecurities! Many of them had stumbled into the world of altruism in pursuit of some selfish motive, some for college credits, others as a getaway to explore foreign lands and cultures.
What had solely persuaded them to stay, however, was seeing firsthand the difference they helped make, the lives they helped better, the suffering they helped alleviate. In due time, they were able to resolve their internal conflicts and see the greater good. That, more than anything else, gave me hope and allowed me to get past the self-doubt.
Out of curiosity, I began digging deeper into this phenomenon and found several studies citing personal development and self-esteem enhancement as some of the major motives for those who volunteered. Additionally, there seemed to be a stream of health benefits, physical and mental, for volunteers who had engaged in altruism in their lives.
These studies reported far fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression amongst volunteers, and participants scored much higher in life satisfaction, in addition to leading longer, physically healthier lives. One study (Schwartz et al. (2003)) concluded that giving help was more significantly associated with better mental health than was receiving help!
If nothing else, this is as good a grounds as any to be altruistic. I determined that ultimately, whatever your reasons -- whether for others or for yourself -- by helping others, you are creating good in the world, and that’s all that matters. At last, addressing the misfortune rampant in our world began sounding slightly less daunting. Statistically speaking, there is no more suffering in the world today than in centuries past. If anything, there is less. Far less. In almost every metric across the board, humans everywhere lead better lives.
What there is more of is the ceaseless, uninterrupted broadcasting of tragedy around the world. And our constant exposure to this tragedy makes us feel powerless as if despite all efforts and contributions there is still always so much more to be done. We can’t help but think, will it ever be completely over? Unfortunate as it is, that is unlikely because suffering is intrinsic to all things living. It is as old as humans and older still. Even in this expansive desert of hopelessness, however, there shimmers brightly an oasis of hope. That oasis is nothing else but our ability as humans to coalesce, to band together into communities and in doing so, compound our efforts infinitely. Any and all progress made in improving the lives of fellow humans to date, of which there has been plentiful, has only been possible due to the individual contributions of so many of us across the world.
The contributions of your parents. Your friends. The contributions of you. Recognized or overlooked. Causal or consequential. This led me to a fundamental realization, one so obvious in its nature yet so profound in its consequences. The realization that, when it comes to all that we can accomplish together, one plus one must not always equal two. It can equal three, or ten, or a thousand, maybe a million. And perhaps, even 7.8 billion. 7.8 billion, healthy, happy lives. The possibility is what we strive for. United we stand, divided we must never be.
- "Although the literature on volunteering behavior and health is relatively well-established, intriguing work also finds correlational links between making charitable donations and psychological well-being." For more on the effects of altruism on psychological well being, check out this literature review by Sara Konrath and Stephanie Brown written for the Handbook of Health and Social Relationships.
- For an easy to read study which corroborates the studies mentioned above, check out Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good by Stephen G. Post. "
- Looking for volunteering opportunities? Check out Volunteer Match or reach out to us here at Inciting Altruism, and we will set you up with some personalized recommendations as to organizations your unique skillsets can benefit. We'll even make the introductions for you!
About the Author
When he isn't consumed by chronic procrastination, Aayzed Tanweer spends his time reveling in cult classic films, concocting wild conspiracy theories, and chatting up strangers every chance he gets. Also food. Copious amounts of mouth-watering, sweat-inducing, life-shattering food.
He's incredibly drawn to the written word and makes vain attempts of his own at exploring his curiosities by way of his blog.