Sept 9,2019

Does Humanitarianism really make us Happy?

Science says that selflessness and altruism boosts our mental health and makes us happy. We delve deeper into the subject to find out if giving is actually better than receiving

Words: Sudhakar Jha

Self Delusional Altruist

I would like to believe that I am pretty giving in nature. I offer my seat to women in metros. I give money to the poor at signals. I help my friends move. I have even volunteered at Gurudwaras. But with the World Humanitarian Day upon us this month, our edit team decided to do some on-ground activities to find out if we really are altruists. And in turn, does that make us happy, as science claims. How much ever I did was all voluntarily, and I was not sure about how much nicer I could be without becoming, you know, dull. When I had a discussion about this with my girl,she said, and I quote, “This will be very hard for you.” Why would she even think that? I am the one who opens the door, gets the chores done and do other stuff in the house. Even in traffic, I wait for others to cross before starting the engine. “Oh, shut up. You swear at everyone for not moving,” quipped the lady. “But they do not mo…” I tried to argue. “See, that’s what you do. You do things that suit you. We don’t go out unless you have some work. You try to win every argument. And that’s what you are doing now too.” “No, I am not.” Or was I? Am I really that person my girl is trying to portray?

Doing Something Real Good

After some drubbing at the hands of my loved ones, I thought that I really need to prove them wrong and show them that I can indeed be selfless and work for others. But then an evil thought came up. Aren’t we all meant to be selfish? Doesn’t evolution teach us the instincts of self-preservation? I mean we are all genetically selfish, aren’t we? To back up this botched up theory, I started Googling and I was in for a surprise. There are no genes that teach us to be selfish. On the other hand, there are genes which make us selfless – where we help someone in return of no personal gain. There is a set of neurons, called amygdala, that correspond to the different types of selflessness. The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons that is involved in decision making, emotional responses to situations and memory. So while on one hand, there are some hyper-altruists, who have a larger amygdala, psychopaths have a smaller set. So, all the decisions I make are not my fault, right? They are genetic?

Well, actually, genetics account for half of the social behaviour we carry out. The other half accounts for the experiences we get in our social interactions. And then there is a strong capacity of selflessness that has to come from within. Okay, so we aren’t born selfish. Accepted! But we ought to be selfish. It works in the longer run, right? Alas, I am wrong again. Because some researchers at the Washington University found out that selflessness makes us happy and improves our overall mental health too. Actually a study in Social Science and Medicine said that those who volunteer regularly spend 38 per cent lesser nights in the hospital. Also, Psychology and Ageing published a report saying that unpaid community service leads to 24 per cent lesser risk of death.

The Moral Dilemma

Okay! So here is the first day of giving! Longer life, here I come! On my way to office, I offered my auto rickshaw to an elderly lady who was frantically looking for one. Humanitarianism check! Next up, near the office, I picked up some litter from the road and reached office with a handful of plastics, cigarette butts, newspaper cuttings. I felt a small sense of pride in all this. Well, may be science is right. Doing something good without expecting things in return does actually make us feel happier. But then every time I pick something up on the road and keep it in pocket, there is a moral dilemma that kicks in. What about those impoverished Bangladeshis who stitched my pants! Oh God, where does this giving stop?

Volunteering Is The Way

Enough of those dilemmas then! Picking up people’s trash isn’t going to make a cut for me. These things can make me do good! But they won’t make me feel good. So what’s the way forward then? “Why don’t you try real volunteering, babe,” said my girl. Yeah, I could do that. Weekends are free and I can go do something that’s more substantial. I went to the local gurudwara to really immerse myself into helping others, and with religion on my side, I could give it a more moral purpose. That’s where I got the real meaning of helping. The head priest told me, “Service should be joyful experience. If you are feeling the burden of it, then you are not doing it right.” He continued, “Volunteering is a privilege that a few people get. Who has the time in the world anymore to help others without demanding anything in return?” He preached me something that will stay with me. And that brought out the true altruist in me.

True Altruism

“Hey, babe, are you going for the monthly ration pickup? Let’s go together,” I said. “What happened to you? How are volunteering to come with me? Do you have some work too?” she asked. “Nothing, honey! I just want to spend more time with you.” I just wanted to invest more time in friends and family. Because that’s what the priest had said too! ‘What do you do for the people who aren’t you?’ If you spend time with your family, it’s a noble thing to do. You don’t have to give all day, every day. It’s something that I can commit to, without feeling burdened. These modifications are more meaningful than others. I swear at work less. I have started visiting the gurudwara more often. I call up my dad more often and talk for hours on weekends. In short, if we are all nicer to each other, we feel happy. We can live longer, happier and healthier. And it can all come without having to do some slavish good things. So before the rains are over and people get on my god damn nerves for blocking the roads unnecessarily, I can swear at them (wink)!

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