When Altruism Increases Your Happiness….And When It Doesn’t

Does performing good deeds for the sake of it confer benefits to the do-gooder? Maybe not.

According to a study recently published in Health Psychology, there are big differences in mortality rates between people who volunteer because they believe in something, and people who are simply “playing house.” A good summary of the article was published in Big Think

Selfish motives to volunteer (to get into a good college, to learn how to use InDesign, to make business contacts, to have a place to store your boat, to meet chicks), don’t confer the same benefits, apparently. People with self-serving motives died at the same rate as people who didn’t volunteer at all, said the paper, published in this month’s Health Psychology

A copy of the original article can be found here.  

The authors hypothesize that the difference between the volunteers is due to how their motives affect their ability to handle stress:

Why should motives matter so much? There’s no hard evidence yet but Konrath et al. speculate that the reason has to do with stress: Volunteers often have to cope with too little time, too few resources, too many hard cases and too much heartbreak. Perhaps selflessness protects against that kind of stress in a way the selfishness doesn’t.

I’d guess the answer has more to do with cognitive dissonance. People have an innate desire to view themselves in a consistent manner, and their mental health suffers when they’re forced to deal with information that conflicts with their inner world-view. It’s why we have such a strong instinct to blame others when things go wrong. 

The do-gooder who helps at soup kitchens because he genuinely cares about the poor can view himself as an altruistic healer with impunity. The guy who’s simply kissing-ass to college admissions committees has to incorporate an image of two-sidedness into his self-identity, making him less happy.

Learning about cognitive dissonance was a small revelation for me. Once you internalize it as a motive for human behavior, you see it everywhere. It explains why we villainize people with different political views, persecute people with contradictory opinions, or why high-status occupations with high barriers of entry (like doctors, lawyers, and dentists) have high suicide rates.

I don’t have any papers in front of me, but I imagine the true-believer affect holds true for most endeavors, and not just charity.

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