Altruism feels good, but a deeper knowledge of the good feeling reveals a core of selfishness. There’s nothing wrong with selfish pleasure in good deeds, but like all pleasures, we’re drawn to seek more of it. You can become so dependent on the good feeling you get from altruism that you “help” others in ways that don’t help. Here’s a closer look at this impulse.
The joy of approaching a reward is caused by dopamine, but as soon as you get the reward, the dopamine stops. You need to do more to get more, which is how nature motivates a critter to keep meeting its needs. Once your basic needs are met, your brain looks for other ways to stimulate the good feeling of dopamine. One way to do that is to meet the needs of others. This sounds altruistic, but it can easily slide into codependence. You strive for rewards in the name of others who often fail to share your sense of urgency. And you keep doing it despite that indifference because the dopamine wires you to repeat behaviors that triggered it before.
Your brain releases the nice safe feeling of oxytocin when you enjoy the safety of social support. A gazelle enjoys oxytocin when surrounded by its herd, but its oxytocin falls if it trots off toward greener pasture. That feels like a survival threat to gazelles and to humans, which is why we keep looking for reassurance that our social support will always be there. Altruism is one way to reassure yourself of social acceptance. But you keep needing more reassurance, the way a gazelle keeps monitoring its herd. Some herds will actually exclude you if your altruism lags, and that feels so life-threatening that you seek more proofs of your altruism.
When you feel important, your brain releases the the calm, confident feeling of serotonin. In the state of nature, serotonin gives a monkey the feeling that it’s safe to reach for food or a mating opportunity. A monkey can get injured if it reaches in the presence of a stronger individual, so the brain evolved to make social comparisons. Your brain is always comparing you to others, though no one likes to admit it. When you come out on top, your brain releases serotonin and it feels good. But when you find yourself in the inferior position, your brain releases cortisol, which warns a mammal to restrain its impulses to avoid conflict. Altruism is an effective way to gain the superior position. You can put yourself above all the people who are less altruistic than you are, and all the people who in your mind caused the problems you are fixing. Each release of serotonin builds a neural pathway that wires you to expect more of the good feeling if you repeat the same behavior. You can find yourself feeling superior about your altruism a lot.
The brain releases cortisol when you see a potential threat. It feels so bad that you’re urgently motivated to make it stop. Sometime we don’t know how because we’re not sure what triggered the threatened feeling. Altruism is often used to relieve a sense of threat by defining it, the way a baboon can run to safety once it knows where the lion smell is coming from. You tell yourself “I am upset about the suffering of others,” and feel a momentary sense of safety. But the cortisol returns because our survival is threatened as long as we’re alive and our inner mammal is in a hurry to build a legacy. If you can’t accept the selfish nature of your threatened feelings, you return to the suffering of others again and again.
Altruism can be like a drug – it feels good at first, but you need more and more altruism to keep feeling good about yourself. You can end up doing things in the name of altruism that aren’t really good for you or even for those you purport to help. As with any drug, you can stop your habit by substituting a new habit. You can learn to accept your threatened feelings by remembering that they are just your inner mammal’s way to promote your survival.
About the author: Loretta Breuning, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, and author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin. She’s Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers resources to help train your mammal brain for more happy chemicals.