Let us admit it at the outset: we are a selfish lot.
Honesty and truthfulness are barely acknowledged, especially at times of crisis. It becomes a matter of survival and we tend to look out for number one.
Looking out for number one has been important for as long as there have been human beings.
Those who are self-oriented, in a biological sense, would survive in a society which values power over kindness.
It may not be entirely our fault. Selfish behaviour has been debated and analysed by philosophers and scientists for millennia, and for the longest time the pervasive view has been one of pessimism for our species — our first instincts are inherently selfish.
Such philosophic beliefs about our selfish human nature inspired many of the teachings we encounter in our everyday life.
Fortunately we also have a cooperative instinct. We were quick to realise that selfishness will result in “aloneness”, while cooperation overcomes our greed in favour of a more homogeneous existence. That is how we were able to form families, friendships, groups, societies and civilisations.
Number one could never have done it alone.
However, in times of anger and aggression, we find ourselves reverting to our baser instincts. People are at each other’s throats rather than at each other’s side. Self-interest becomes the most fundamental of human emotions.
Plato compared the human soul to a chariot that is being pulled by two opposing horses, “one is majestic, the other is evil.”
The Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Chicago, conducted a study of the brains of both children and adults and there it was again — evidence that people care more about themselves. The self takes precedence.
The good news is that kids are not born selfish. Kids have spontaneous biologically based tendencies to care about others. They do that without being asked, offered a reward or observed by parent. Psychologist Felix Wanaken spent 17 years studying toddlers. They display “altruistic behaviour from a very young age”.
Therefore, it is human to be kind and compassionate, but we seem to lose it along the years. Let us not.
Hang on to religious teachings, as in the Ten Commandments, to suppress our innermost selfish desires, and let love and compassion for our fellowman rule the day.
We can do that in a variety of ways that would cost us little or no effort at all.
Praising a team worker, giving someone your shoulder to cry on, saying the magic words, “please” and “thank you”, especially to subordinates, giving a complement, a helping hand are all morale boosters for both parties. Little things mean a lot.
Best of all is giving a gift. Gift-giving activates reward pathways in our brain provided we don’t let stress take away the joy of the occasion. This intrinsic delight of doing something for someone else is “oftentimes referred to as a “warm glow”, said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, University of California at Berkeley. She has devoted her career to studying the roots of compassion, happiness, and altruism.
Several studies over the last decade have demonstrated that spending money over someone other than yourself provided happiness. That is because when we behave generously, like donating to charity, or giving a loved one something they wanted, creates more interaction between the parts of the brain associated with processing information and feeling pleasure.
At the University of Switzerland in Zurich, researchers gave 50 people $100 and instructed half of them to spend on themselves and the other half to spend it on someone else. They performed functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure activity in the brain associated with generosity and pleasure during a social sharing task. Yes indeed, those who spent money on others reported higher levels of happiness.
The uniqueness of the reward activation around gift-giving activates pathways in the brain that release oxytocin which is a neuro-peptide that signals trust, safety, and connection.
It is often referred to as the “cuddle hormone”.
When oxytocin is part of the equation, the reward can be sustained longer, unlike the brief lifespan of dopamine. The effects on the brain are even preset during various steps leading up to the actual opening of the gift, “such as in shopping for the gift, wrapping it, etc”.
Everybody loves receiving gifts. The richest people who have everything, can buy anything, love to receive something.
Giving gifts is an ancient ritual that dates back as far as human memory. It is how we express our love, our appreciation for a job well done, or to share our own fortune.
It is in our DNA as social creatures.
The value is insignificant. It is the thought that counts.
There is something about giving that brings the giver even greater joy.
Truly it is better to give than to receive. The giver has the greater advantage in the transaction, with added psychological and emotional benefits.
Gifts should evoke memories not money. The recipient will not only remember the gift, but also the giver.
We all want to matter. A gift is a token of how much we matter. It is never about money. No money in the world can bring happiness.
An ice-cream cone on a warm summer day to a young boy is worth a gold mine. Your reaction to his reaction is worth two gold mines.
The most precious gift of all is the gift of time.
Today, someone is happy because of you.
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.