Here is a cool thing about our monkey brains: because we are social, group-living apes whose survival for much of our evolutionary history has hinged on how well we can support each other and fill in the gaps in each other’s abilities, you get brain biscuits for being kind to people.
The brain biscuits are happy brain chemicals which your brain likes to pay out as rewards for doing evolutionarily advantageous stuff (ie, things that help engender your survival or the survival of those who will in turn engender your survival, plus anyone carrying your genes). Hence orgasms, the satisfaction of eating, and the sneaky don’t-mention-this-but pleasure of not being busting for a pee/poo anymore. We also feel good about social rather than physical things: you’re comforted by human touch when you’re distressed because this means you’re part of the group and therefore your survival is a priority not only of you but of the rest of the group.
Happy brain chemical payouts also occur when you do small favours for others, like buying them a little gift, or helping them with a heavy object. There are a variety of layers in that particular payout: one is that you have just facillitated a positive interaction with a stranger, which means they are less likely to hit you with a shoe or something horrible like that (active non-aggression); you’re cooperating with another human monkey beast, which is something your brain has evolved to give you noogies for because cooperation = survival; and by being in a position to demonstrate kindness, you are also displaying power over someone else. In the benignest possible sense, giving gifts, favours, and assistance to others is a way of inviting them to look at what a massive set of … biceps … you have. “I can AFFORD to help you”; “I am STRONG ENOUGH to carry this for you”. There is also, finally, reciprocity: if you do a solid for someone and they remember, they are more likely to do a solid for you in return.
The brain can also be induced to hand out happy chemical rewards by poking drugs at it, but that’s expensive and has diminishing returns and has infuriating side-effects; it also makes it really hard to concentrate on doing the accounts.
This blog post isn’t intended as one of those moral “how to be a better person” things, in part because what constitutes a good person changes continuously; it’s also not one of those teeth-grindingly appalling “LET LOVE AND SUNSHINE INTO YOUR LIFE AND FEEL LIKE YOU’RE CONSTANTLY HOPPED UP ON SPIKED SUNNY DELIGHT” hippy emails your 60-year-old acquaintances relentlessly forward to you. It’s more of a life hack (idiom guaranteed to be rendered obsolete in ten minutes) or brain hack with an element of moral watchdoggery.
You probably already do nice things for people because you’re not a total socially incompetent dickslice, and because it makes you feel good. Focus on the “feel good” bit for a minute: what I’m suggesting is that instead of letting the good feeling deceive you into thinking that you’ve gained a fragment of moral gold and can spend it on a whim in future (“I’m not sexist! I helped an old lady look for her shoe this morning!”; “You can’t call me inconsiderate, I’ve held open dozens of doors this week!”), it might be more productive to treat the small favours you do “for others” as gifts to yourself.
Not “man I am so great and kind I totally do things for other people”, but “that lady’s struggling with a thing, if I help her I will totally feel a bit better, it’s science”. And as a happy bonus you’ve also made that random lady’s life marginally easier, made her feel less beleagured, and possibly cheered her up too. The primary focus, though, is that it’s a happy brain chemical release, and you’re doing something for yourself. Why?
Because not treating these momentary considerations as determinants of your character stops, or helps to stop, two habits we’re all very prone to.
One. Mistaking “generally a person who does good deeds” for “a good person” and therefore “unimpeachable”. Reminding yourself that your generosities are at least partially self-serving helps to remind you that a positive social outlook is not grounds for avoiding criticism, or feeling like you’re “owed” something. The reward for these kindnesses is the good feeling it gives you: anything else that results from them is a bonus.
Two. Believing that they’re all that’s needed. Real, nasty problems are not fixed by lending someone your hanky: the unexamined good feeling that accompanies leaving a tip in someone’s paypal jar can deceive us into thinking we’re doing something profound. This, and our innate tribalism and desire for inclusion or conformity, is why slacktivism is so often popular.
By being honest with ourselves about the motivation for small kindnesses, low-cost kindnesses, we equip ourselves better for big, high-cost, protracted kindnesses. They don’t pay out as consistently as the smaller ones, they can be emotionally gruelling: caring for a sick relative is frequently not a source of happy brain chemicals. This is where acceptance of the selfish nature of fleeting, low-cost altruism helps to bolster your strength:
This isn’t fun. I am not doing this for me. This is a big sacrifice, a big kindness. I am doing something which identifies me as a good person.
Because it is painful, the toil is harder, but the avenue of “I am a good person” as emotional support for the action is not tarnished by overuse in small, low-cost favours. There is less temptation to fall back on a softer, less helpful position and say “I’m a good person” about it because you’re accustomed to pocket-change donations being equal to half-paycheque ones.
Don’t mistake me here: small favours and kindnesses still matter. They still have impact on people’s lives. As odious as the Tesco advertising slogan is, every little does help, if only a little: small kindnesses are necessary for facilitating social cooperation, they are the oil on which societies run. And doing them makes both the doer and the recipient feel momentarily happier. We should just be more honest about why we do these things, and make our lives better with that, too.