– a 6 minute read.
We’ve all experienced it. That Facebook friend who is posting about doing something ‘nice’ for others… and, for some reason, it makes us feel a bit weird.
Whether it’s something for charity, or helping someone out, this publicly posted positivity can often be the cause of confusion and judgement amongst peers.
Yep, the same people that liked the photo of the dog with his head stuck in a wall will, at best, feel a sense of confusion, guilt, and/or frustration with this declaration of goodness, and keep on scrolling down.
But what makes people feel that way? After all, he or she is doing a good thing… right?
Funnily enough, I experienced a direct ‘attack’ only yesterday. A friend ‘jokingly’ dropped the following sentence into our conversation: “you’re only nice because it makes YOU feel better!”
It was the day after our (by ‘our’ I mean ‘The Body Lounge Foundation’ which I founded with my brother Toby and close friend David) Stars of Salisbury event. That wasn’t the first time it’s happened either.
It, obviously, got me thinking. I mean, doing something ‘nice’ for somebody does make me feel good! But, is that a bad thing?
Good and bad kindness
In short, if we ignore those who relentlessly preach to others (which is a entirely different psychological can of worms), it appears that it’s the REASON for the kindness that will encourage either a round of applause or some seriously raised eyebrows.
In his informative article, Steve Taylor Ph. D. discusses the differences between altruistic (being ruddy nice to people) intentions and I think this goes some way to give explanation for how people might respond to an act of kindness.
It turns out, the intent of kind acts can be split into two groups: ‘‘egoic’’ altruism, and ‘pure’ altruism. Meaning, doing good for personal benefit and doing good solely for the sake of others, respectively.
However, Taylor does go on to say, “According to some psychologists, there is no such thing as ‘pure’ altruism.”
But it does seem that the closer we can get to doing something as ‘purely’ as possible, the more acceptable it is in society. Or, on Facebook.
This leads me to consider; if we have the understanding that no-one does anything completely selflessly… are all kind acts for self interest equal in the eyes of society?
Kindness’ dirty little cousin
“I hate it when charities launch and within a month, the founder employs his wife as the charity secretary for £70k a year.”
In 2011, when we were setting up The Body Lounge Foundation (back then we called it ‘The Giles Brothers’) I met with Gordon Parris, founder of the charity ‘Children With Special Needs’. To this day, I vividly remember one particularly brilliant thing he said: “I hate it when charities launch and within a month, the founder employs his wife as the charity secretary for £70k a year.”
You could say that, even if this type of charity goes on to make millions for others, this scenario has actually stepped outside the true definition of ‘altruism’, and we can now call it a business. We can disclude this type of organisation from this conversation.
So, financial gain aside, what about those who do it because it makes them FEEL good? As per the title of this post. Either feeling good directly or because they believe it will encourage others to think good of them.
Does that make it a lesser version of kindness?
On one hand you could say that shouting about the fact you have done a good thing is unnecessary self promotion and there’s more dignity in keeping it on the down low. On the other hand, how much of the ‘shouting’ satisfies the (arguable) need for social engagement and, in some cases, inspiration?
There are other motivations that aren’t solely for the benefit of the recipient too!
With their belief and value system built around doing good for others, let’s take a look at the motivations of a Christian.
I am swimming in unfamiliar water here and so I apologise if I overstep the mark anywhere. As far as I’m aware though, Christians act as per the instruction of god.
Now, if it’s true that ‘pure’ altruism is born from the intrinsic ability to empathise with other people, or in other words: have compassion, could we say that followers of god are also, at some level, exercising egoic altruism: by virtue of the fact that they are being told to act, and that it, most probably, comes with a huge sense of satisfaction from living up to the purpose of their self proclamation?
That was a crazy paragraph, but nonetheless, does this make what the Christian is doing wrong? Or any less great? Absolutely not.
In addition, there are quite obviously ‘Christians’ living by the ‘rule-book’ who have also developed deep routed intrinsic compassion for others. There are billions of people living somewhere on the scale in between both those extremes too!
Okay, so what’s the point?
To ascribe qualities, motivations and personality traits to the Christian community as a whole is, in itself, just as ridiculous as believing we know why ANY individual chooses to do what he or she does.
When we judge someone’s motivations, we are merely configuring stories in our minds based on assumption. And that, my friends, is the point.
There are multiple reasons for why people choose to do what they do.
In the case of acts of kindness, I ask, if the result for the recipient is exactly the same, irrelevant of the intention, does it actually matter anyway?
Apparently it does. And that is what makes people, and life, so interesting.
I have to admit though, I do find it strange that as a society, there is so much stigma around, and resistance to, looking out for others. I don’t want to end this post sounding like some sort of twee hippy (not that there’s anything wrong with that *wink face*) but it would be interesting to see what would happen to the world if more energy was spent in the doing, as opposed to the judging.
I do think there might be a few more happy people kicking around this earth, if that were the case.
I realised whilst writing this that I’m pretty good at observing and discussing stuff. Which is clearly something I love to do in ‘real life’. The small issue is, I also realised that I’m not so hot on finding definitive answers.
So, to stick with the theme, we are now left with a few unanswered questions:
- Do people think and feel animosity toward people who do good things, and instinctively dig out sabotaging stories in their minds, because they believe it will help THEM feel better? Albeit temporarily.
- Does anyone really do anything purely for the sake of others?
- If compassion is the driver of acceptable altruism, how does one go about learning that?