It was good to see people getting together in the spirit of giving, during the Telethon this weekend.
There’s no doubt that doing something nice for somebody else makes you feel good. In fact, the pleasure seems to last even longer than doing something nice for yourself. Research has shown time and again that happiness and altruism go hand in hand.
So, if altruism makes you feel good, does that make it selfish? Philosophers have debated this question for centuries. Some conclude that there is such a thing as genuine compassion; others say that everything we do is self-serving.
T o me, the whole argument only makes sense if you assume that we are separate beings, whose wellbeing can be measured separately. If you accept that we are interconnected, then ‘altruism’ can be reframed as ‘taking our part in humanity’ rather than ‘putting others before oneself’. An act of kindness for another person acknowledges that we are both part of the same world, and that we are acting as we would hope the other person would, if our situations were reversed.
Certainly it’s possible to provide ‘charity’ with a sense of superiority over the receiver, but this is not the kind of giving that brings the good feeling I’m talking about. Most acts of kindness are done with empathy and a sense of sharing something in common. When we give in this way, it brings a sense of connectedness with one another and reminds us that we are not alone. No wonder it feels good.