The Joy of Giving

Why altruism and generosity make us healthier and happier-and how we can all give more.

The Fragility and Distortions of Our Love of Neighbor

The sources and distortions of our love of others.


It is remarkable to observe how unstable our actions on behalf of others are. Our innate evolved rescue impulse is often switched off in indifference; our rationalistic sign post grounded in moral principle ("a common humanity," e.g., Kant, Mill) is often just a thought; our habituated virtues can be easily overridden by negative hierarchies that require callousness; good role modeling from parents or mentors can readily be corroded by bad; empathy and compassion can be overcome by destructive emotions. And a love from above, some spiritual source of love ensconced in religious tradition, can just as easily result in demonization of outsiders as it can in the great works of love that we associate with a Ghandi, a Cicely Saunders, or a Jean Vanier.

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The most credible source of altruistic motivation is empathy, the other-oriented emotional response elicited by the perceived condition of another. But empathic concern for others could still be rooted in the need to reduce empathy arousal, in a fear of censure, in a desire for reputational gain, and in gratification. But the best current psychological research indicates that while these exist, from the motivational perspective, these are "unintended consequences." Empathy has been shown in many experiments to provide a direct, unmediated, immediate response to the conditions of others (e.g., C. Daniel Batson).

Our love of others can of course be very healthy and its disinhibition can bring us joy, health and even longevity. But do not think that all expressions of love are healthy. Some are really just expressions of:

Self-inflicted suffering (masochistic, neglects care of the self)

Sadistic generosity (humiliates, berates, criticizes recipient)

Manipulative altruism (controlling, grandiose, narcissistic)

Compulsive altruism (coercive, cannot accept "no thanks," relies on gratitude to regulate low self-esteem)

Dependent altruism (giving no matter how much abuse, craves dependent relationship with a narcissist)

So even in the domain of love there is false consciousness. Purity from such negative tendencies is important, and vigilant self-awareness is thus needed. I have no great love for the masters of suspicion, like the philosopher Sartre, for whom all expressions of kindness were deemed manipulative. And yet we need such suspicions without being overwhelmed by them.

 

Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., is Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University, and Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics. more...

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