The Selfish Altruist
If there’s one thing we knew going into Joie’s development, it was that happiness has an astounding number of sources: anything from sunny days and slobbery puppies to fresh-baked brownies and hitting all the green lights on your way to work. These examples—climates, food, animals, and driving conditions—are all concrete things, but that is not to say that happiness always stems from the tangible. There are also more nebulous factors that lead to happiness; among the most significant is making other people happy--doing good deeds.
Even small gestures provide a little dose of euphoria. Doesn’t it feel good when you hold the door for an old lady struggling with her groceries? What about when you fish out change to buy a glass of lemonade from the kid down the street, even though you really wish he had a liquor license?
Most people would likely consider these “easy” sacrifices. Holding the door might delay your afternoon by twenty seconds, and a glass of lemonade could set you back a dollar (hey, inflation!), but the happiness investment is not very high and the return is significant.
It is this emotional kickback, this ephemeral glow of “wow-I-am-a-good-person,” that, literally speaking, makes doing good things selfish.
“No!” you might argue, “I held the door because it’s important to respect the elderly!” Even if this is your line of reasoning, it still has its foundation in self-gratification. There is a standard—respect the elderly—and you feel good about yourself because you upheld it.
These small actions are not the only kind of good deeds that may present themselves. Let me make it personal for a second. My fiancé, even before meeting me, knew I loved cats, because I plastered my beloved Schrodinger all over social media profiles. For our second Christmas together, he gave me a book, Think like a Cat, with a photo of the Siberian kitten he got me tucked between the pages. Needless to say, one of these hypoallergenic cats does not come cheaply—but the true sacrifice here wasn’t financial.
Michael is allergic to cats—even to the so-called “low-allergen” varieties. The cost-benefit analysis of this good deed is considerably different from holding the door for an old lady: he didn’t lose twenty seconds, but all functionality of his sinuses.
I would therefore argue that there are degrees of selfishness associated with good deeds. Those deeds that require minimal effort are proportionally more selfish; you get to feel good about yourself without having to expend too much time, energy, or comfort.
Doing good deeds that require more sacrifice are less selfish. Michael bought me a kitten, partly because making me happy indirectly makes him happy—but the cost of this emotional benefit did not come cheaply. Here, his good deed yielded disproportionate levels of happiness: I—and he can correct me if I’m wrong—derive more happiness from Luna than he does by having made me happy. It’s getting a little meta, I know. Bear with me.
This claim isn’t meant to make cynics out of everyone. The conclusion is actually encouraging. Darwin teaches us that precisely because altruism is selfish, it is effective in helping both individuals, and species in general, survive. This isn't an post on biology, but if you're interested in the science behind altruism, check out Christopher Bergland's article here.
Another way to consider the relationship between good deeds and selfishness is through BF Skinner, the father of operant conditioning. We won’t get into the clinical details of Skinner’s rat-in-a-box experiments, but the general principle is as follows: a reward increases the occurrence of a behavior and a punishment decreases it.
In the end, the selfish reciprocity that surrounds seemingly altruistic actions actually predicts that good deeds will increase. You hold the door for the old lady. She smiles a toothy grin and calls you “a dear.” You feel good. Rinse, repeat, and go on making the world a happier place.