GORDON GEKKO MAY HAVE PREACHED THAT GREED IS GOOD IN THE MOVIE WALL STREET, BUT SCIENCE CLAIMS THAT GIVING IS GREAT. PERFORMING SELFLESS ACTS IS PURPORTED TO IMPROVE YOUR EMOTIONAL HEALTH, BOOST YOUR CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM, AND EVEN MAKE YOU HAPPIER. BEN SMITHURST FINDS OUT IF ALTRUISM IS ALL IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE.
"BUT WHY EVEN TRY TO BE GOOD? SURELY IT’S BETTER TO LAUGH WITH THE SINNERS THAN CRY WITH THE SAINTS. EVEN EVOLUTION TEACHES US THIS PRINCIPLE."
WAKING FROM SELF-DELUSION
I THINK I’M A nice guy. Or I thought I was. So when my editors (smirkingly) proposed I do an altruistic challenge (“You need to be good for a month— give money to beggars, volunteer at a soup kitchen, help old ladies across the street”), I was slightly worried.
I mean, how much nicer can I possibly be? Or, at least, without becoming very dull? I already help friends move, pick up a round at the bar. I’m the one—me!—who gets up to comfort our one-year-old when he wakes up at night, screaming like a baby Steven Tyler who’s caught his head in a gate. I recycle. I bought a reusable coffee cup. It’s around here somewhere . . . I’m practically a saint.
But then I tell my wife about the story. “Ooh,” she says, “that’s hard. You can be pretty selfish.”
“What? No, I can’t. You can!”
“I let people in in traffic. You don’t even drive!”
“No,” she says. “You swear at everyone. You have terrible road rage; it’s scary. You only ever do what you want to do. We hardly ever see my friends.”
“But they’re bor–”
“You won’t go out unless it’s to the bar across the road. You only vacation where there’s surf. You went on a surf trip when I was seven months pregnant! Surfing is a selfish sport. And you have to ‘win’ every conversation. You’re doing it now.”
“That’s not . . . oh.”
So maybe I’m a self-described saint like Kanye is a self-described messiah. But can a cartoonishly un-self-aware man-child with cloddish tendencies and minimal impulse control turn the corner in just a month?
RESOLVING TO DO GOOD
BUT WHY EVEN try to be good? Surely it’s better to laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. Even evolution teaches us this principle. The selfish gene. The preservation instinct. Ethicists may name it “egoism,” but everyone else calls it “society.” Selfishness—it’s just what we’re born to do. That afternoon, expecting to confirm it’s what we’re born to do, I begin Googling. Looks like I’m in for a polite awakening.
While there is no selfless gene, there are genes that promote behaviour we call “altruism”— behaviour intended to help another without benefit to oneself. These are the kinds of actions that fascinate Abigail Marsh, Ph.D., associate professor at Georgetown University. Marsh was one of the first researchers to look for individual differences in real-world altruistic behaviour, particularly the crazy, you-must- be-a-saint-or-alunatic forms of self-sacrifice: anonymously donating an organ to a total stranger.
“What I found,” Marsh says, “is that a specific part of the brain corresponds to individual differences in altruism: the amygdala.” That’s the almond-shaped structure in your head responsible for things like emotional responses, memory, and decision-making. Turns out some people (crazy organ donors) have a larger amygdala than the rest of us—as much as 8 percent bigger. Others (psychopaths) have on average a smaller amygdala.
Potential psychopathy aside, this seems like great news, confirming my secret maxim that nothing I do is actually my fault. But then Marsh tells me genetics only accounts for half of altruistic or “pro-social” behaviour. The rest is predicted through life experiences, and as it turns out (psychopaths not included) we all begin with a pretty selfless capacity. “We’ve evolved to rely less on sheer physicality and more on social abilities,” says Marsh. As a weak and slow species, we need each other. This is why children will instinctively try to help strangers.
My argumentative ammo is running low. Okay, fine. I concede. Maybe we aren’t born selfish. But hey, selfishness works in the long run . . . right? Wrong again.
According to Marsh, evidence abounds for how helping others improves our mental and physical well-being. Studies have shown that tutoring children can boost your stamina, memory, and physical flexibility while reducing levels of depression. Similarly, a study in Social Science & Medicine reported that people who do regular volunteer work spend 38 percent fewer nights in the hospital than those who don’t lift a finger for others. And if that doesn’t sway you to give your time, then consider this: Performing unpaid community service lowers your risk of mortality by a staggering 24 percent, according to research published in Psychology and Aging. In short: The good do not die young.
Turning over in bed that night: “I’m going to die young.”
My wife smiles.
“I’m serious. I’m not community minded. I hate people.”
“You’ll be fine,” she replies from the far side of the mattress. Then she chuckles, not very nicely, and goes to sleep.
BATTLING MORAL DILEMMAS
I EASE MY WAY into the good life. First, I start drinking fair-trade coffee, even though I’m suspicious of “fair trade.” I also (mostly) stop eating meat. (Mostly) not eating meat is awful. But cows are boiling the planet to death with farts, and pigs are smarter than toddlers. Animal ethics: check.
On foot, I pick up each scrap of litter I find, sometimes arriving at my destination with armfuls of plastic bags, my fists crammed with other people’s cigarette butts. I look for old ladies who need help crossing the street. I find none.
On the road, I invite idiots to merge, even when they’ve obviously had the chance to change lanes for like one kilometre but only do so 12m before the turn. Overall, I feel a small, blossoming sense of pride . . . and a growing, superior smugness. (Long life, here I come!) But it’s a lot of work, and meetings are far worse when a dozen wet-slug cigarette butts fall out of your pocket as you pull out your phone. Your phone that was made by suicidal Chinese workers, and your pocket that was sewn to your trouser leg by impoverished Bangladeshi urchins. Suddenly I don’t feel so smug. Everywhere I turn, another moral dilemma. Where must the giving stop?
Hoping to answer this riddle, I pick up some Peter Singer, a fellow Aussie and a utilitarian philosopher, someone who should share my selfish ends-over-means attitude. But Singer’s utilitarianism is all about happiness, and how to make more of it for more people—people who, it turns out, aren’t you. Singer’s ethics come with constant moral responsibility. For example: Say you pass a drowning child on your walk home. Would you save him?
Of course. Would you save him if it meant ruining the $250 Yeezys you’re wearing? . . . Sure. What if the child were drowning in another country and, instead of ruining shoes, you just had to mail $250? In both cases, you lose $250 and save a kid. If you’d ruin your Yeezys, why not send the check? Of course, things aren’t that straightforward . . . right? Wrong once more.
According to GiveWell, a Moneyball-style non-profit dedicated to seeing which charities provide the most bang for a donor’s buck, $1,000 can purchase 237 insecticide-treated nets to protect people against malaria in the developing world. Which is incredible! Except that it means Singer was right: Every time you choose a $250 pair of shoes over a $50 pair, you’re basically deciding not to set aside and donate $200, which is equivalent to potentially giving 47 people malaria. Enjoy your Yeezys, a-hole.
I need something more tangible.
THE PATH OF VOLUNTEERISM
SO MAYBE DONATING from afar and picking up trash isn’t for me. Plus, I like one-on-one, being able to see the crass consumers of the trash now congealing in my pocket. I decide to properly volunteer.
First, I try wrapping gifts at a department store. The cashier gives me the purchase, I wrap it for “free,” and the customer donates a dollar to charity. Simple. Except my results are all thumbs, subpar, barely tolerable.
This is when I discover that volunteering is hard. It’s not that there aren’t organizations crying out for help but that they want commitment, not just poverty tourism: a CEO wheeling his or her family to a soup kitchen to show their kids how good they have it.
Hoping religion might give me some moral resolve, I reach out to the Jesuits, the missionary shock troops of the Catholic Church. If any religious organization knows service, it’s them.
Mike Reddy currently serves as president of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He was a Jesuit Volunteer in Los Angeles, living (modestly) in a house with four other volunteers and serving as a case manager for Homeboy Industries, an employment and rehabilitation centre for previously incarcerated or gang-affiliated men and women. (A far cry from the Chicago suburbs where his parents raised him. He was also accepted to medical school, which he ultimately decided to forgo and instead moved to L. A.)
“People believe service and volunteerism should be zero-sum, a situation where you give everything and get nothing,” Reddy explains. “Service really should be a joyful, mutual experience. Service should not feel like a burden. If it does, then you’re not doing it in the right way.” He says that the ability to volunteer is a privilege in itself. Not everyone is able to take time off work or school (or for the sake of journalism). The point is what we do with that privilege.
“The question you want to ask yourself,” says Reddy, “is ‘What have I done for people who aren’t me?’ ”
There are many ways to make the world a better place, Reddy tells me. Some involve service or charitable giving, but some don’t. If you spend time with your family and you invest in your family, that’s a noble cause. You don’t have to give all the time.
And on that modest note, I embark on some true volunteering. Something I can commit to but that doesn’t feel like a burden. I go back to school.
BECOMING A ROLE MODEL
I CALL MY LOCAL primary school’s front office and volunteer my time. After an all-important background check (and brushing aside vague concerns that the school will think I’m some kind of deviant), I’m ready to serve. Let the giving begin.
For those of you with time and privilege and a school nearby looking for volunteers, I can’t recommend this option enough. A week after calling, I’m sitting with a class of six-year olds as they do basic reading exercises and make letters out of Play-Doh. The next week, I’m on the playground at recess, destroying 11- and 12-year-olds at handball.
I get to know the kids by name. Who’s a sore loser. Who’s a bully. Who has a killer serve, and whom I therefore have to foul out for some made-up reason. They call me “Mr. Smithurst.” It’s nice.
But it’s hard to shake the idea that my joy is selfish, that I’m not doing it for the truly altruistic reasons saintly volunteers always seem to possess. Marsh, however, seems to think that our altruistic reward system is a positive sign. Channelling the Buddhist monk and molecular biologist Matthieu Ricard, she has consoling words for my guilt: “The very fact that we feel good when we help other people presupposes that we are altruistic; if we weren’t built to be altruistic, why would we feel good helping others?”
So maybe this cartoonishly un-self-aware man-child has some good in him after all.
Even Miss Julia, the teacher who has been watching me decimate her children on the playground, seems to think that my being there is salutary.
“The thing is, having a role model to play handball with at lunchtime is really valuable,” she says.
“Because they . . . need a handball hero?” I ask.
“No, not to teach them to play handball but how to get out,” she says. “How to lose. Like, ‘Whoa, you’re out, buddy—next!’ Because they fight about it. They need a role model with those social skills.”
What Miss Julia says makes a lot of sense. Marsh had also been quick to point out the same kind of altruistic domino effect, the effect the average person has on social norms. According to her, people who exist within a culture where they expect the average person to be trusting and helpful will themselves be trusting and helpful. Why? “Being a human is complicated,” says Marsh. “And since life is full of these complicated decisions and choices, we take our cues from people around us. Just by being good, you can help change the perception of what the average person is like, and thereby alter others’ behaviour.”
Can I change the world by being a good sport? Maybe not the world, but at least how these kids treat one another on the playground. And I don’t need to write a million-dollar check or risk my Yeezys in a river to do this.
“We have another guy who comes in and does a boot camp,” Miss Julia adds conspiratorially. “It’s fitness, and”—she grins—“all the rougher kids swear at him. But he just swears back at them. He’s actually ex-military; he’s a great swearer. But he takes no sh*t.”
Why! Miss Julia! . . . Can I swear at the kids?
EMBRACING PURE ALTRUISM
THE MONTH winds down. I watch the bullies become less bullying and the sore losers develop more grace. They’re works in progress. But I’m invested—more than I’d ever been, at any rate.
I’ve altered my behaviour, I think, at least slightly. I now swear less in the car. I’ve bumped up my monthly contribution to charity foundations. I’ve got an open invitation back to the school.
I’ve been nicer around my wife, too. When I get home, I ask her about her day. I’ve booked us a meal at an actual restaurant. It doesn’t even have TVs on the wall. It’s not even near our house!
“You know,” I say, having been careful not to mansplain the tiramisu, or to talk over her when she vents, “I am very lucky to have you. You’re a great mother. I love you. And you look amazing in that dress.”
She eyes me suspiciously. “This is an old dress,” she says.
“It’s amazing,” I repeat.
“Are you still being nice for that article?” “I’m finished.”
“Why are you being so nice?” she asks. “Stop it.”
We should go on a vacation, I suggest. A romantic getaway. King Island, maybe. Wild and romantic, off the shoulder of Tasmania. Or Margaret River, the fabled wine region of Western Australia.
Bali, perhaps? Tropical and sweet! The Island of the Gods! “Bali?” she says. “Bali! Are you serious? I bet there is surfing in all those places.” I wince. She’s right. She laughs, in a clipped, sort of vindicated way. But at least there’s a twinkle in her eye.
True selflessness is hard. When I brought this up with Marsh, she had a quick reply: “We tend to use our own experiences of the world to infer other people’s. It’s called ‘egocentric bias.’ So we suspect that for people who don’t believe in the possibility of truly altruistic motivations, this belief is probably related to their own dispositions.” Ouch.
Hoping to confirm my dispositions one final time, I call surfer Taj Burrow, the Pipeline Master, former number two on the world professional surfing tour. He retired in 2 016 to spend more time with his young daughter.
Is surfing, I ask him, a selfish sport?
He laughs, a little low-key chortle. “Ha! I’ll admit it: Surfing is incredibly selfish,” he says. “When the waves are good, you drop everything. It’s hard to adjust to not being selfish, too. That’s why I quit the tour when I had a family.”
Yes, I say, but would you go on vacation to a place without waves?
“Are you kidding?” he asks. “For sure!”
A no-surfvacation it is, then.
THE ALTRUISM ADVANTAGE
NO, IT’S NOT THE POINT. BUT GIVING YOUR TIME TO OTHERS CAN ENHANCE YOUR HEALTH AND WELL-BEING.
Hours of volunteer work completed per month by people who describe themselves as very happy
SOURCE: SCIENCE OF GENEROSITY INITIATIVE, UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME
Reduced rate of mortality among people who volunteer versus those who don’t
SOURCE: BMC PUBLIC HEALTH
Reduced rate of death among caregivers compared with non-caregivers
SOURCE: AMERICAN JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY