Why does doing good feel so darn good?

But also, is altruism a myth?

“Is the “thank you” from one person worth it, worth whatever it costs?”

This was the singular line in my journal entry a few days ago. I had watched a movie earlier where the protagonist had bent her work rules a bit to accommodate an elderly man. His thankful smile flooded the screen and I’d wondered.

Why does doing good feel so good?

At the core of it, does it mean we’re inherently selfish — doing something good only because it serves us, in its own subtle way?

I mean, what is altruism, really?

Described as behaviour motivated by a desire to benefit someone else above one’s self, altruism isn’t a foreign concept to us.

Giving some change to the beggar on the street. Babysitting your neighbour’s child at the expense of a girls’ night out. Laughing at your mom’s joke even though you’ve heard it approximately 25 times before.

So then, how could this possibly be a bad thing?


Altruism in the brain

According to research in social neuroscience, altruism is associated with a specific pattern of brain activity. One of such areas is the limbic region (such as the nucleus accumbens and anterior cingulate cortex). This is usually involved in motivation, action and reward.

The insula has also been implicated due to its association with emotions when we think about the potential consequences of a selfish decision. Simply put, it can make us feel bad when we don’t act so good.

Other regions associated with cognition and emotional processing (like the amygdala) have also been implicated.

However, emerging research is trying to discover the evolutionary purpose, as even infants can display this.

After all, even animals show this trait — dolphins and monkeys have been noticed too!

🧠 Catch up on last week’s post on What Music Does To & For The Brain.


What’s the actual psychology behind altruism?

Imagine you’re driving a car, radio on blast, living your best life. Until you abruptly come to a halt. A group of school-children, while trying to cross, had just almost run into you!

Thankfully you didn’t hit them.

What goes through your mind?

a) “Thank God I didn’t hit these kids and harm them.”

b) “Thank God I didn’t hit these kids to be on my way to prison right now.”

c) both.

You see, some believe we have ulterior motives for doing good, that we’re always selfish. I don’t buy that. Maybe I’m needlessly optimistic.

Aren’t both reasons valid?

Described as an ego defence mechanism, psychologists say altruism can be a way to ease one’s own anxieties and guilt. By focusing on others, we wouldn’t need to confront our own problems, all while feeling good as well.

There’s no denying that altruism has its benefits. After all, kinder people tend to be happier. It definitely can have a domino effect as the phrase “paying it forward” comes to mind.

Professor Daniel Batson, a psychologist, has identified four major motives of doing good: to benefit one’s self (egoism), to benefit the other person (altruism), to benefit a group (collectivism), or to uphold a moral principle (principlism).

But does the motive really matter so long as good was done? Professor David Wilson seems to think so, arguing that the intention behind altruism is not important. He likens this concept to how ants work to move the entire group forward, regardless of the cost to the individual. Anything as long as the hive continues but could this be the same for humans?


Here comes the philosophical question — can true altruism exist?

I don’t believe anyone does anything without reason or rhyme, except in cases of a loss of healthy mental capacity. Ultimately, there’s always a why.

Maybe altruism is largely doing good, regardless of the reason(s). Maybe that’s just the thing — multiple reasons can exist for one thing. Most often than not, they do. And if multiple reasons co-exist, does that mean they dilute one another?

Maybe as with most things in life, it exists in the grey.


🧠 Final thought.

I came across this video during the week. And so the answer to my journal entry question is yes.

A thousand times, yes.


In other news…

You might have noticed I’ve been exploring with my sketches. I find that I’m drawn (no pun intended) to the simple these days. Thanks for sticking with me while I figure it out, for being a wonderful reader, for being so kind.


🔌 Recommendation of the week!

This stunning Instagram feed. ALL the heart-eye emojis.