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Most days present us with opportunities to commit minor altruistic acts, small choices to forgo an advantage for the good of someone else—waking early to make the coffee, standing to let an elderly person sit on a crowded train, slowing down to allow another car to merge onto the highway. These moments of mild self-sacrifice seem like the right thing to do, but often defy logical analysis on reflection. After my good deed, I arrive at work a bit drowsy, a little footsore, or a few seconds late, to what end? In a personal cost-benefit calculation, each act exacts a price but rarely seems to yield a direct, tangible dividend.

If these acts are “right,” why are they right? This question becomes more profound when the sacrifices increase, when choosing selfless actions might impact our own welfare or health—as when donating heavily to a cause or rescuing an injured motorist from a burning car. Deeper consideration of why such acts are right suggests that they aren’t just inherently good; they also yield hidden benefits, such as a sense of personal wholeness, mutual regard or social approval.

While individual acts of selflessness might be costly, making a habit of acting selflessly yields cumulative rewards. American journalist and writer Joan Didion hints at this in a thoughtful description of self-sacrifice, which, she says, “is the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.” She suggests that the daily succession of simple, inconvenient choices—to work a little harder, to take small risks, to help out despite the hassle—is likely to lead toward better things.

We might worry that the cumulative cost is hardly worth what seems an uncertain, distant gain. In fact, these acts bring about their own benefits over time, in what psychologist Howard Rachlin calls “highly valued patterns of behavior.” He explains that we derive deep personal satisfaction from the consistency of our actions, especially when we and others perceive them to be ethical or right. These patterns, not the specific moments of self-sacrifice, make us happy and define who we are.

Even so, it seems a little jaded to cast our day-to-day acts of selfsacrifice as a steady grind toward some future reward. It isn’t all short-term cost and long-term gain. When our acts of self-sacrifice benefit someone else, we naturally take pleasure in their reaction. According to psychologists George Ainslie and Nick Haslam, built-in neurophysiological mechanisms connect us deeply with each other. They explain that “vicarious feeling of other people’s emotions is a primary good” and that it is a compelling reward for altruistic action. Empathy yields immediate emotional returns when we make others happy or relieve their suffering.

Sympathetic bystanders who witness an act of kindness or a heroic rescue also share emotions of happiness and relief and reward the act with admiration. This is particularly true if they see it as part of a larger pattern of altruism (rather than as a single act driven by some self-serving motive). While the habitually altruistic might brush off public admiration, it feels good anyway, and it builds social capital.

We know that leaders who act selflessly inspire not just admiration, but also cooperation. Researchers at the Rotterdam School of Management have shown that business leaders who engage “in self-sacrificial behavior are considered more charismatic, effective and legitimate.” Employees reward their self-sacrifice with “trust, cooperation, and improved performance.” This seems almost obvious: It is far easier to work for a generous boss than one who is self-absorbed, especially after arriving at the office drowsy and footsore from our own selfless acts.

Individual acts of self-sacrifice may just seem like the right thing to do, and they usually are. But the key is to make altruism a lifetime habit. Selflessness helps us to identify and connect with other people, and it boosts our ability to work well with others.


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Twenty-Seven

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