The Selfishness of Altruism
Here's why you try to "help" whether or not it helps.
Posted April 28, 2016
Altruism feels good because it stimulates dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. We're tempted to repeat altruistic gestures whether or not they help those they purport to help because our brain is designed to repeat behaviors that feel good. This conundrum has been called Pathological Altruism. When you understand the neurochemistry of altruism, the selfish motives are clear.
Your brain releases the great feeling of dopamine when you meet a need. Once your basic needs are met, it can be hard to stimulate. This is why people develop quirky habits of all sorts. Focusing on the needs of others can trigger dopamine, and it can easily become a habit. It may seem better than a gambling habit or a sugar habit, but it has a down side of its own. You can actually hurt those you wish to help if you take responsibility for meeting their needs and their own sense of responsibility is undermined.
When a mammal enjoys the safety of social support, the nice safe feeling of oxytocin is released. A gazelle surrounded by its herd enjoys oxytocin, and the good feeling drops when the gazelle steps away from the herd to seek greener pasture. This is nature’s way of motivating a mammal to keep seeking the safety of social support. We humans keep seeking social acceptance because it stimulates oxytocin. We dislike herd-following in the modern word, so we need frequent abstract reminders of our acceptance and belonging for our mammal brain to feel safe. Altruism is a very effective way to create that sense of belonging.
When you feel important, your brain releases the the calm, confident feeling of serotonin. No one likes to acknowledge their urge to feel important, but its universality is obvious in the state of nature. Mammals avoid conflict by comparing themselves to others and avoiding food and mating opportunity when a stronger individual is present. When a mammal sees that it is in the position of strength, serotonin is released. It approaches the resource, and it feels good. The mammal brain evolved to constantly seek this good feeling. There are no easy ways to get it in the modern world, where seizing a banana from weaker individuals is not tolerated. Altruism is a reliable way to enjoy the good feeling of being in the position of strength. Your mammal brain keeps comparing whether you acknowledge it or not. Altruism elevates you above everyone you deem less altruistic than you are.
The mammal brain releases the bad feeling of cortisol when it sees a potential threat. Cortisol does its job by creating an extreme sense of urgency, which motivates you to do what it takes to make the bad feeling stop. Neurons connect when cortisol surges, so anything that turned on your cortisol in your past easily turns on more of it today. This can leave a person with a frequent sense of extreme urgency that’s hard to interpret and thus hard to stop. This is why we’re so eager for ways to make sense of our cortisol.
Altruism can help. Whenever you feel bad, you can tell yourself that you are upset about the suffering of others. When you fail to relieve your threatened feelings, it’s tempting to blame them on something outside yourself. When cortisol creates a physical discomfort that’s hard to explain in words, focusing on the suffering of others stimulates your mirror neurons and helps you attach meaning to the physical sensation. Alas, it’s not a meaning that helps you understand what actually turned on your cortisol and how you can turn it off. More on this in my book The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry
Many people have learned to think it’s selfish to focus on your own needs. But natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you do what it takes to promote the survival of your genes. Verbal abstractions have less power over our feelings than we may wish. It’s important to understand the mammalian operating system that controls our neurochemical ups and downs. (A complete explanation is in my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels.)