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Selfish Altruism

  • Written by  Anna Maximiw

How helping other helps you?

To be altruistic is to be motivated by a desire to increase another’s welfare, and every day we see examples of this through volunteerism, donations, personal causes, and charity work.

Altruism is confusing, though. Helping others doesn’t make much personal evolutionary sense. Why would we exhaust ourselves to donate time and effort to other people? When I first volunteered to be a Beaver Scout leader, it wasn’t exactly willingly.

People aroun camp firePeople aroun camp fireRather, my mother and father, who shared leadership of the same Beaver Scout troop, insisted that I would be joining them. I balked.

I protested that I wasn’t good with kids, that I was too busy. No matter.

Every Thursday night, I was to spend an hour running around a gymnasium with twelve five-to seven-year-olds. Being a Beaver Scout leader was exhausting. I’d come home after meetings and collapse on the couch.

But surprisingly, I liked it. Running around screaming with five-year-olds released my inner wild thing. I found that I identified with the introverts in the pack, and the first time I comforted a weeping, shy child, I felt both humbled and strong.

But surprisingly, I liked it. Running around screaming with five-year-olds released my inner wild thing.

When I danced with them, uninhibited, I laughed until my shoulders hurt. I helped them, yes. I put ice on head bumps, taught them to limbo, and sang dopey campfire songs in a falsetto.

But at the same time, in an unintentional, beautiful way, I was also helped. There are lots of theories floating around regarding altruism: that we who practice altruism expect eventual reciprocity; that we’re more altruistic toward our relatives, because helping our kind will pass on our genes; that it makes us feel better about ourselves; that we do it so that we rise in the social hierarchy by rising in the esteem of our peers. But it turns out that there’s a simpler explanation – it makes us happy.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 25 February 2014 23:32

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