Helping others dampens effects of everyday stress

Dec 17, 2015

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Providing help to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers can mitigate the impact of daily stressors on our emotions and our mental health, according to new research published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves,” explains study author Emily Ansell of the Yale University School of Medicine. “Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.”

We often turn to others for social support when we’re feeling stressed, but these new results suggest that proactively doing things for others may be another effective strategy for coping with everyday worries and strains.

“The holiday season can be a very stressful time, so think about giving directions, asking someone if they need help, or holding that elevator door over the next month,” Ansell adds. “It may end up helping you feel just a little bit better.”

Laboratory-based experiments have shown that providing support can help individuals cope with stress, increasing their experiences of positive emotion. To investigate whether this holds true in the context of everyday functioning in the real world, Ansell and co-authors Elizabeth B. Raposa (UCLA and Yale University School of Medicine) and Holly B. Laws (Yale University School of Medicine) conducted a study in which people used their smartphones to report on their feelings and experiences in daily life.


Read more by clicking on the name of the source below. 

53 comments on “Helping others dampens effects of everyday stress

  • You “would like to think” that the effect is “not” greater? Why in the world would you “like to think” such a thing?

    If expressing gratitude doesn’t enhance the feel-good for the recipient (of the gratitude), then what’s the point? This is what’s known as positive feedback. Its purpose is to encourage more helpful behavior by making the helper feel good.



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  • Seasonal response would be ‘Be good for goodness sake’.

    I learned a long while back not to ever do anything if gratitude is the basis for me doing it. If the person has the capability to express gratitude then fine but, as Phil has said, the most needy have problems so putting myself in their shoes says they appreciate it, or will at some point in their lives, and …..It goes without saying. You can think yourself into misery by imagining the opposite by why be that cruel to yourself? The selfish gene doesn’t have to be that obvious to be gratified.



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  • People get paid for this crap? Emily Ansell? She’s got a nice cushy job, doesn’t she? Why doesn’t she do something productive with her life? This is the result of her great study? Jesus! It sounds like everyone is conducting studies now. This one takes the cake.
    My twelve your old niece knows that it’s good to be kind; it gets us out of ourselves, makes us feel better, etc. It’s common knowledge, for Christ’s sake.



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  • Spot on, Olgun.

    Doug,

    As a child I was never sufficiently grateful to all those grown ups who helped me, possibly because their excellent and appropriate help wasn’t what I wanted or the sort I wanted at the time or I was simply too involved in myself. Most I feel a deep sense of gratitude to those who came before and effectively “gifted me the best seat in the house”. From this vantage point and possibly like never before in the history of the entire universe I can look out upon the most distant galaxies, know my own history nearly all the way back to when we were just auto catalytic chemistry in a hot black smoker, and help build and use the ultimate neural prosthetic, culture.

    Do good and pay it forward. Invest in others. Gift the next generation, and tidy up after you.

    All that wasted Christian gratitude!

    Every act of charity today I judge to be a societal failure. Charity survives on personal feel-goods and in Christian hands becomes a point of behavioural leverage. Far better to have the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune mitigated for others in a proper welfare state fairly, consistently and reliably administered and paid for by your taxes so you aren’t forever fussed by your own acts of “charity” and use that as a reason to do no more.

    The spectacularly unequal US is the outlier amongst developed nations in having poverty an actual indicator of intelligence….It uniquely lacks an adequate welfare state.

    You’ll gets thanks enough, just maybe not always within earshot.



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  • Remember ideas of god survive on the “fact” of peoples’ feelings.

    The more corroborated actual facts about our feelings the better. Its surprising how little work has been done in this area. Next is to test Doug’s very reasonable hypothesis and also explore some of the other mechanisms that may lie behind this phenomenon.

    Benchmarking the amplitude of the effect under given test conditions gives us the opportunity to tease out the comparative significance of these other mechanisms.



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  • Hi, Phil!

    How are you? Q: is sympathy in the brain? I assume it is, but it’s hard for me to accept, and not to rebel against, that notion.

    Btw, you resemble Jimmy Page. Maybe you are Jimmy Page.



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  • Before Dawkins’ God Delusion there was Freud’s Future of an Illusion. Have you read it? Everyone on this site should. I am surprised it isn’t talked about more. He discusses, among other things, religious feelings and expressed great disdain.



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  • Good thanks.

    You too, I hope?

    Sympathy, an intellectually introspected upon product of empathy, or of cues that signal empathy in some, is in the brain at the instant of use but useful aspects of it have been induced there by culture. Sympathy for the underdog is rather different in different cultures.

    Yep I see the older Jimmy Page. The brow perhaps, the jowls…

    Definitely not him. My hands have all the musical facility of a bunch of carrots.



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  • Sadly, there is too much new to read and I remain unthrilled by the Freud I have read. He is a bad reporter of actual facts, editorialising them before they reach you. Now William James tried harder…



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  • phil rimmer
    Dec 17, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    I would like to think not. Often the most needy are incapable of gratitude or expressing it.

    Someone else might notice though.

    Certainly in terms of skills, (especially those thinking skills disabled by indoctrination and its side effects), the know-it-all incapable, are more likely to stubbornly set themselves against accepting and using help, rather than expressing gratitude for it.



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  • …not to ever do anything if gratitude is the basis for me doing it.

    I suggested nothing of the kind.

    The article is about the benefits of being helpful to the giver of help. It’s hard to imagine that the benefits would not be enhanced by positive feedback. It’s also hard to imagine how this could be viewed as anything but a positive.



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  • It’s hard to imagine that the benefits would not be enhanced by positive feedback.

    And yet, Doug, there is reward before this.

    So much of my gratitude is after the fact….way after the fact, decades even centuries late. This observation of my own gratitude and its very real targets is the pre-emptive reward and goad of my own better actions.



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  • That’s very kind, Dan. I have a lot of Freud as PDFs. I will probably have this. I’ll go check.

    (My virtual library is extensive but not all brought together on my new server…One day….one day…)



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  • …never sufficiently grateful…

    So it appears there is a level of gratitude that is “sufficient”.

    Gift the next generation…

    Helping the current generation (including myself) is a form of gifting the next generation.

    All that wasted Christian gratitude.

    What an odd comment. (Perhaps you intended to write “Christian charity”, which would be another thing entirely.) What makes gratitude “Christian”, and how would gratitude of any kind be wasted, unless it were somehow to be rejected by the intended recipient (and what sane person would reject gratitude)? You seem to be going off on a rather wild tangent here. The article is about general, everyday helpfulness and how it apparently benefits the giver (as well as the receiver, presumably).

    Yes, it’s understood that the primary feel-good is the immediate feedback of observing the (presumably positive, good) effect of helping on the helped, but I can’t see how expressions of gratitude (whatever the form) from the helped to the helper could be seen as a negative or harmful in any way.



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  • Doug

    If expressing gratitude doesn’t enhance the feel-good for the recipient (of the gratitude), then what’s the point?

    Reciprocal altruism
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    In evolutionary biology, reciprocal altruism is a behaviour whereby an organism acts in a manner that temporarily reduces its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness, with the expectation that the other organism will act in a similar manner at a later time. The concept was initially developed by Robert Trivers to explain the evolution of cooperation as instances of mutually altruistic acts. The concept is close to the strategy of “tit for tat” used in game theory.

    Gratitude is not necessary as motivation for humans to engage in helping behavior. It may act as some small positive reinforcement in the short term but there is a much longer term substantial payoff for us in the obligation we place on the beneficiary of our good deeds. In a large extended family and when friends and acquaintances are included in a network of reciprocal altruism, this is better than any current day life insurance policy. An individual can call in their favors for repayment just when they need them the most.



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  • I never thanked my parents or my brother enough, f’rinstance, for giving me such fantastic thinking tools and such endless amounts of their time and patience etc. etc. But they knew they wouldn’t receive it at the time. Gratitude is a personal call.

    You can indeed go beyond the current generation when “gifting”. We need decades of investment in new business, energy and resource management. That will see astonishing dividends in generations to come. Our current business models have entirely self serving investment cycles of a few years. Much greater returns can be had on playing the longer game. If earlier generations had thought this we could have been further ahead now and we too would have been more inclined to long term investment…always paying it forward. I am endlessly grateful to Enlightenment thinkers or those who fought fascism and those who fought for my freedom of speech and for a welfare state. They could have chosen a less costly investment. The tragedy is the Libertarian mindset centred on the reward of today’s transaction only.

    Christian gratitude is spent on God as the gifter and not the hundreds and millions of folk that made their “best seat in the house” position possible. Heading to your salvation, as many fundamentalists are, very few have the slightest interest in the future generations of society.



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  • An individual can call in their favors for repayment just when they
    need them the most.

    I can claim to be the worlds worst there. I give without embarrassment but receiving is a problem. Maybe reading the book you recommended, Quite (just arrived this morning) will help?



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  • but I can’t see how expressions of gratitude (whatever the form) from the helped to the helper could be seen as a negative or harmful in any way.

    Like the heightened reward of sugar it can skew a healthier diet, like favouring charity over a welfare state funded from taxes, turning it from a gift demanding gratitude to a right the disadvantaged should expect and rely upon. Like favouring short term gratification over the greater rewards to be had with deferred gratification.

    We all like candy, but best to not obsess. You lose the taste and favour the skilled grateful over the truly needy.



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  • Olgun

    receiving is a problem

    I had this same reaction and luckily, a couple decades ago, a friend of mine corrected me on this in a very direct way. She was in the process of thanking for something and I must have started squirming around. She cut me off and said, “When someone expresses gratitude, just say ‘You’re welcome’, that’s it. Say nothing else.” That was definitely some well given advice – and I’m grateful for it! Now after years of practicing that I can elaborate on the answer. Sometimes I can ask the person to pay it forward. In my own mind I often remind myself how lucky I am to be in a position to help someone in need. Sometimes I think about times when I needed similar help but none was offered. I try not to go there because it can get too negative. Let it go. Let it go.



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  • I can accept a thank you graciously. Its just that person I have taken places in my car or given help in DIY or some sort, can never ask for the favour in return. Will walk miles not to do so. I think I have narrowed it down to fear of being rejected. “After all I’ve done for them”…….See below!!

    I try not to go there because it can get too negative

    Totally agree Laurie but I do find, if the person has been blatantly and repeatedly ungiving then I can turn them away. Not for anything serious though.



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  • Olgun

    I will also say that I am very concerned with family leadership now. I think about this everyday and I’m aware that I need to model good leadership in full view of all the twenty-somethings in the family. Not just my kids – nieces and nephews and also I do extend my leadership out to the girlfriends of our young guys. Yesterday my son’s girlfriend thanked me for some help she received from me and I said “You’re welcome” (with eye contact that I also still have to practice every day) and I extended the “you’re welcome” with an explanation that although I didn’t have any good role models for matriarchal leadership, I’ve had to look farther afield for that training and I am still trying to make up for lost time. It takes practice and on the job training to be a good leader in any situation. I told her that I am learning how to recognize when it’s correct to help, how much help, what kind of help is needed and when to let the axe fall on those who deserve and need that in the moment and how hard can I push any particular person in the direction that I think they need to go. Some are more resilient than others and one size (of coercion) doesn’t fit all. It is such a relief when I can be honest about my failings and bring that generation in on the changes that I want to make. They are uniquely situated to propel these changes forward along with the weird and wacky collection of genes that we have going on here.

    That conversation with her and a few others were clearly motivated by the fact that she has just delivered to us our first grandchild. I feel a strong impulse to solidify my ethical reforms and prompt her to refine them further.



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  • From the OP

    “Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.”

    This finding is a vestigial remnant of what used to be obvious in an extended family/tribal model where a vast complicated network of reciprocal altruism operated in full effect. It can still be observed/experienced in traditional cultures. Now, in this modern nuclear family model, we must displace the object of our altruism onto strangers unrelated to us. I think we are trying to deal with the uncomfortable knowledge that we might not get the payoff from the stranger that we can expect from the person who must share some amount of our own DNA.

    This seems like a great opportunity for self-serving faux charity – “Hey everyone! Look how great I am!! I just helped that poor slob over there!!” Actually, now that I think about it, that really is a mega payoff that does exist in the traditional tribal model as well. Men increase and solidify their status by loaning money to their underlings. This is a huge bragging point for the lender and must really lock the underling into a strong social contract with the lender. His “bitch” in the current parlance.

    But maybe these daily acts of altruism are in a way, a defiance of another genetic imperative, much in the same way that some say they refuse to procreate and their genes can go straight to hell. Sometimes we can tell our genes to go to hell. I’m fine with that. “Listen genes and you listen good!! Sometimes I’m going to help someone who carries no copy of you! And I’ll probably never get a single payback at all for it! Now sit down and shut up!! ggrrr



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  • This is just bleedin’ obvious; unless suffereing from some pathological disorder, as most probably were Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and their ilk, it’s known that empathy is fundamental to our nature.

    In any case, I’m not prepared to start “..holding that elevator door over the next month,” for anyone; what about all the others waiting for the lift?

    Bloody daft idea!



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  • Perfect, Bonnie!

    I’ve made a couple of Theremins on the bench, I love them so much. Ideal for salad fingers.

    Today’s invention. A blue tooth coupled mini theremin, the executive toy for those wanting to play at Forbidden Planet.

    Next, the Ondes Martenot….



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  • @ Dan – Btw, you resemble Jimmy Page…

    Slightly off topic, when Jimmy Page first stopped dying his hair, just a few years ago, it was of course all silver/gray. That became his new look and it’s a good one IMO. However at first he wasn’t yet pulling it back into his current fashionable rock star ponytail. Anyway, he did a Rolling Stone cover shoot with his old band mates in prep for LZ’s O2 Arena show a few years ago in tribute to Ahmet Ertegun. Decent pic though his hair had a long, bowlish style that was still growing out into appropriate ponytail length. In the next issue of RS a reader wrote in asking why the Quaker Oats guy was on the cover of Rolling Stone. It was a great comment. But yeah Phil, perhaps current Page.



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  • I am feeling what you say there all the way Laurie. I screwed up and had to step away and wait. I could bleat on about depression, a difficult but very intelligent eldest son, a wife who pulled in the opposite direction because she didn’t know how else to deal with it etc etc etc, but it seems I did do the right thing in the end and step back because as my children get older they are coming home to roost. It links very well with the OP and how instant gratification is not needed. If it is expected, then the stress levels go through the roof if not given. I have always been good at sowing little seeds in people’s minds. Lost my super powers for a long while. 🙂



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  • Simple grooming gets a lower sect animal huger status so with what you say, it is mutually beneficial. The monkey left out in the cold, not allowed to bath in the hot volcanic waters groomed the dominant male and got a ticket in.

    It does seem like giving and receiving might be seperate traits as my (my dad is even worse if that’s possible (genes?) ) receiving is faulty!!!



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  • We all like candy, but best to not obsess. You lose the taste and favour the skilled grateful over the truly needy.

    It’s probably best “to not obsess” in general, so I don’t disagree. But why does obsessing even have to come into this discussion?

    Here’s what I read: You would like to think that the feel-good effect of helping is not enhanced by gratitude because you worry that the inevitable development of a taste for gratitude will become the driver of the helpful behavior (instead of the healthy, wholesome feel-good that unsweetened help brings) and that this will mean those who are particularly “skilled” at expressing gratitude for the help they receive will win the competition for the attentions of the help givers. Instead, you’d prefer that givers of help be satisfied with the knowledge that “you’ll get thanks enough” or “someone else might notice” (though you might not experience it directly with your eyes or ears), because that sort of (virtual, eventual, delayed) gratitude is less prone to the pitfalls of actual, immediate gratitude.

    Here’s what I say: Gratitude is gratitude, and I suspect it has feel-good power whether it’s immediate or delayed. Developing a taste for the former over the latter is not inevitable.

    I can enjoy and appreciate the value of a small dessert after my nutritious meal without worrying that having the dessert will destroy my appreciation and understanding of the value of eating healthy meals, or that I will be so overcome by the feel-good charms of dessert that I may give up healthy meals altogether. The key is education.



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  • Doug,

    Education or learning? Have you ever seen a parent who insist on the child saying ‘thank you’ and takes away the ***** if the child doesn’t say it? Embarrassment, threat and a host of negatives just for gratification of the giver. Associating these in later life? How about the Japanese way? Would you be comfortable with a thousand bows? Do you donate to charities through text? Is an automated ‘thank you’ enough? I said ‘ you are welcome’ to one of those texts. I gave without expectation of a second thank you 😉



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  • What about giving to an animal? I have seen programs in which rescued animals, when released, sort of stop and look back after bolting a hundred yards or so and the narrator says something like, ‘she looks like she is saying thank you’………is that enough. A moment in the film/book ‘The Life of Pi”, when Richard Parker (Tiger) walks off into the jungle and doesn’t look back is heartbreaking for Pi. Was it a man or a tiger and is it okay for one or the other?



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  • Education or learning?

    Don’t they go hand-in-hand?
    What you’ve described are examples of what you, I, and perhaps others would consider failures of education, the seeds of which probably originated several generations ago and unfortunately will persist unless somehow corrected.

    Is an automated thank you enough?

    Enough for what? Enough to produce an extra feel-good? I think so.



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  • Reciprocal altruism

    Reciprocal altruism is not the point of expressing gratitude.

    Gratitude is an expression of appreciation and affirmation to encourage future acts of kindness. Affirmation is what produces the feel-good boost.

    there is a much longer term substantial payoff for us in the obligation we place on the beneficiary of our good deeds.

    Obligation? So we’re not “good for goodness’ sake”?



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  • Doug

    Gratitude is an expression of appreciation and affirmation to encourage future acts of kindness

    Why are you so stuck on this “gratitude” thing. You brought it up right in the first comment and no one is very impressed by the idea. I’m not impressed greatly with it either. I don’t require it ever and don’t expect it. My payoffs for altruism are not so short sighted. I’m playing a long game here, not a short term ego-high by manipulating people into groveling at my feet. Maybe you require and need expressions of gratitude to motivate altruistic deeds but others operate above and beyond that. If all the words for “thank you” in all of the languages on earth disappeared magically, would we have less altruism? I don’t think it would make one damn difference. Altruism is predictable and there is an equation for that!

    So we’re not “good for goodness’ sake”?

    I never said so. But it’s a decent goal and I have used the phrase to correct religious people who claim that good comes from God.



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  • I agree that this study is lame, as I said in my excellent post (above somewhere), but I do not think that empathy is fundamental to the human species as a whole. I think it varies considerably from individual to individual.
    Complex subject.



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  • but I do not think that empathy is fundamental to the human species as a whole. I think it varies considerably from individual to individual.

    How do you know? May you be muddling the variability you presumably observe with a variability in expressed sympathy?

    Empathy, after all, is only a feeling.



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  • Why are you so stuck on this “gratitude” thing [?]. You brought it up right in the first comment and no one is very impressed by the idea. I’m not impressed greatly with it either.

    The subject of the article here has to do with the benefits of helpfulness to the helper. My “hypothesis” seemed like a natural extension of the subject. Apparently a few were “impressed” enough to respond, and the only reason I am (seemingly) “stuck” on it is that some of the responses seemed to object to and/or reject the idea. Frankly, I’m confused by the objections/rejections. The reasons seem to be peripheral.

    I don’t require it ever and don’t expect it.

    This is a good example of the objection/rejection that confuses me. Did I ever say anything about requirement or expectation? If someone responds to your helpfulness with gratitude do you reject it, or object? Does it not make you feel just a little bit better? (Does it make you feel worse?) Do you interpret it as affirmation that you’ve done a good thing (whether you need it or not)? Should you? Is it a bad thing if you do? Are you concerned that if you do, your altruistic goals will somehow become corrupted? (I’m not concerned, by the way.)

    My payoffs for altruism are not so short sighted. I’m playing a long game here, not a short term ego-high by manipulating people into groveling at my feet. Maybe you require and need expressions of gratitude to motivate altruistic deeds but others operate above and beyond that.

    Apparently you are concerned that gratitude corrupts. I would agree that it’s “possible”, but for those of us who are already inclined to be helpful (for other, presumably “better”, reasons) I don’t think it is a big reason for concern. We can play our “long game” and still manage the short-term highs. And here again you make the incorrect assumption that simply posing the question is an indication of where my motivations for being helpful come from. Who brought “manipulation” to “groveling” and “need” for gratitude into this discussion? Why jump to such conclusions? It is not my motivation, I don’t need it, I don’t advocate that it should be anyone’s motivation, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t enjoy the effect of gratitude when it occurs.

    If all the words for “thank you” in all of the languages on earth disappeared magically, would we have less altruism?

    I would think that what we would have is other ways of expressing gratitude, just like the other social animals on this planet that do not have language.

    I said: So we’re not “good for goodness’ sake”?
    You said: I never said so. But it’s a decent goal and I have used the phrase to correct religious people who claim that good comes from God.

    Olgun said it earlier, and apparently you have also said so elsewhere. The phrase is not meant to be a rejection of religious claims. It means that we should be good to others because it’s good (perhaps for everyone), and not just because we expect payback. It’s a call to be more selfless and less selfish, presumably because that is a way to achieve the greatest good. However, it appears from comments you’ve made regarding altruism, that you advocate being good not just for the sake of being good. When one speaks of “payoffs” and “the obligation we place on the beneficiary of our good deeds”, this is not a description of being good for the sake of good. Along with being peripheral to my original comments, this is about good for the sake of future payback for yourself or your group, which of course would be good for you (and yours), but that translates to selfish, not selfless.



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  • which of course would be good for you (and yours), but that translates
    to selfish, not selfless

    As with climate change, the benefits will come long after I am dead. How can that be SELFish? The same goes for helping an old lady across the road, unless i need the pat on the back, either from others or even from myself, then it is purely selfless. The doors in Hitchhikers guide say thank you only feed the need if it exists. I am saying I don’t have that need if I feel the person can’t deliver or the machine is delivering a disingenuous version.

    Of course, as Phil has said elsewhere, everything can be said to be selfish but your own perception counts.



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  • Festivus gift – ‘Cornfield by Moonlight’

    Thank you. “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day” – Van Gogh.



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  • …the benefits will come long after I am dead. How can that be SELFish?

    “That” wouldn’t be considered “reciprocal altruism” (as introduced into this discussion by LaurieB and defined by Wikipedia).

    I’ve never said that there is no such thing as selfless behavior (though I am skeptical). The question is (still) whether or not being thanked for being helpful can enhance the feel-good that we apparently can experience (as the article suggests) when being helpful to others. I believe it can, and I also believe it’s not necessarily a bad thing (as some here have suggested). Does having your feel-good enhanced by gratitude (whether you seek it or not) while helping someone else make the help less valuable? I don’t think so.



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  • The interesting thing though, Doug, is that one of the virtues of early communities is the decoupling of one to one reciprocal altruism (the proto libertarian model) into a personal reciprocal altruism with the tribe. Somewhat like a collective insurance premium paid whenever you could and drawn upon whenever needed.

    Economists have learned to refine their thinking of how market economies evolved, in the face of these anthropological findings of hunter gatherer communities. Trusting the pay it forward investment this way has been good for us by collectivising and increasing the reliability of the investment. Learning to engage subsequent generation “pay it forward” has proved to be rather more genetically founded than one to one reciprocity ever could be, securing your future genes and the secure environment for them. This is the true meaning of gene “selfishness”. (Libertarians note.)

    I think your thesis entirely reasonable, indeed obvious. But it think the issue is how you enculturate your kids in relation to it.

    It should be a mirror of this-

    A world where we seek never to take offense above worrying if we give it, will be the more honest and productive. So-

    A world where we seek always to express gratitude above expecting it, will be the one to flourish.



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  • But why does obsessing even have to come into this discussion?

    I think some societies wrongly praise charity over installing a proper welfare system. Being charitable buys feel-good where paying taxes does not. Making the transition into decency is tough when Charity is so toothsome.



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