Thursday, August 2, 2012

Happiness: Do-Good-Feel-Good

While most agree that a greater level of happiness can be obtained by changing the way we live, I think that it requires far more than a change of actions. For instance, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky sets forth eight suggestions for better mental health (happiness).  Perhaps the most popular one is to “Practice acts of kindness.” She writes:

  • These should be both random (let that harried mom go ahead of you in the checkout line) and systematic (bring Sunday supper to an elderly neighbor). Being kind to others, whether friends or strangers, triggers a cascade of positive effects – it makes you feel generous and capable, gives you a greater sense of connection with others and wins you smiles, approval and reciprocated kindness – all happiness boosters. (Time, January 17, 2005)

She is correct about the payoff. We even derive satisfaction when we give a stranger directions. We can even get the payoff when the stranger doesn’t even have a chance to acknowledge our good deed.

Walking down the street, I saw a driver pulled from his car, about 30 yards in front of me, and repeatedly punched. A crowd was watching the “entertainment.” I screamed repeatedly, “Police – Get down of the ground,” at the top of my feeble voice. The assailant immediately fled, and I resumed walking. No one congratulated me, but I felt good about what I had done.

However, this strategy – do-good-feel-good – has its limitations. For one thing, there is the law of diminishing returns. The pay-off decreases. The “cascade of positive effects” no longer seems to flow as it once had. This strategy might work admirably in the short-run, but eventually, we become weary of well-doing.

I worked for the New York City Department of Probation for 15 years. I signed on for the same reason that many others had. We wanted to help others get back on their feet. But we also wanted to feel good about what we were doing.

However, there are few people who become as jaded as social workers. Why is this so, if we are helping others? Perhaps we are helping them for the wrong reasons. While there is nothing the matter with doing-good-feeling-good, this strategy will produce disappointment if it’s our main motivator.

For one thing, it’s not that easy to help others. If we become a social worker to do-good-fell-good, we are therefore going to be disappointed. For one reason or another, our clients fail to comply with our expectations. They do not noticeably change. In fact, even when we think that we are making progress, they will eventually thoroughly disappoint us, depriving us of our payoff.

Many social workers therefore get burn-out, hate their clients, and perform their jobs with noticeable disgust.

Similarly, atheists often adopt the do-good-feel-good moral code. They don’t believe in an ontological good or bad – moral absolutes that exist independently of human thinking – but they try to act in a “good” manner for the payoff. They might call it “enlightened selfishness” or “pragmatism,” But it comes down to the same thing – do-good-feel-good. However, the diminishing payoff is not substantial enough to support this lifestyle, and it is gradually abandoned.

Besides, if we are only doing good for the payoff, it is not really good. Instead, it’s self-centered. Relationships cannot survive on such flimsy stuff. Commitment to higher principles must provide the necessary glue. We cannot bail out of our commitments when we are not getting the expected payoff, when the “cascade of positive effects” becomes a trickle.

Love says, “I’ll stay beside you even if you break down, even when you are terminally ill.” Biblical love doesn’t depend upon the payoff. It knows that pleasing God is enough of a payoff, even when we hurt. The conviction that I was doing the right thing with my probationers had to be my primary payoff.

I even suspect that our high divorce rate of 50% is largely due to this pay-off philosophy. Consistent with the understanding of do-good-feel-good, many marriage counselors give their couples exercises – performing acts of kindness - to jump start their relationships.

I am not saying that these exercises can’t be used profitably. They can. But if they are used with the expectation that it will always “win you smiles,” you will be greatly disappointed. Your partner will eventually catch-on and realize that you are using these techniques to selfishly get what you want.

If you only bring your wife flowers to obtain certain favors, she will eventually regard your flowers as manipulation and will cringe at your gift. Instead, love is a matter of giving when there is no expectation of getting your payoff.

How then can we live unselfishly? How can we transcend the shallow do-good-feel-good way of life? At this point, I must confess that – naturally speaking - I am a selfish person. Last month a stranger asked me for directions, but before I could open my mouth, another person overheard the request and jumped in, preempting me. I left in a huff. He had deprived me of my satisfaction!

We all want our payoff. How then can we defer gratification and live in an other-centered manner? For me, this only becomes possible if I am convinced that an all-benevolent Savior is looking out for me. I can only begin to forsake immediate gratification because I am convinced that He is my ultimate gratification.

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