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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

“Selfless good deeds don’t exist” 

– Joey Tribbiani (Friends)

In a particular episode (S5EP4) of the famous (or infamous) American sitcom Friends, Joey Tribbiani played by Matt LeBlanc announces the aforementioned phrase to his friend Phoebe Buffay played by Lisa Kudrow who then embarks on a journey to find a truly selfless good deed ultimately failing in finding one. When I saw this episode, it was perhaps the first and only time in my life that in a single moment I related on a deeply personal level to two characters who stuck to polar stances. Joey’s stance reflects the part of me that is convinced that the human race in inherently selfish and whether the realization strikes our conscience or not, we’re always driven in our deeds to fundamentally find good for ourselves. Phoebe’s unwavering belief in and her steadfast journey to find a truly selfless good deed is a manifestation of the other half of me that has attempted to penetrate through layers of theories that biology, philosophy, and psychology offer to explain what drives us to help others, a portion of which I shall try to show in this article.

Charles Darwin’s path breaking theory of natural selection that rested on the survival of the fittest propagated that the evolution and survival of species ran counter to the performance of selfless behaviours. A closer inspection of nature, however, indicates that all animals and humans are capable of showing undeniable kindness. The essence of such actions has been captured in the modern term altruism coined by Auguste Comte. Altruistic behaviours emanate from a desire to help someone other than oneself and don’t provide any direct rewards to the people who perform them.

Evolutionary psychologists explain altruistic human and animal behaviour citing that while such behaviour might endanger the life and livelihood of the performer, individuals are likely to risk the same if that offers protection to the kin community meaning that the protection of an individual’s genes goes beyond the protection of the individual. Hence, the Evolutionary Theory points, in difficult situations, people are more likely to help family members.

Several social factors also play their part in arousing altruistic behaviour. The idea of reciprocity pushes people to be good in order to receive good immediately or in future. Consequently, those who receive help feel indebted to pay back and a domino effect of sorts is erected making good deeds a requisite to strengthen societal bonds. Reciprocal Altruism is one example of the Social Exchange Principle that operates based on risk and reward balances. Additionally, whether we consciously realize or not, an emergency situation arouses emotions like that of fear, sympathy or anxiety among bystanders and the action of extending help is evoked by the need to relieve oneself of the triggered emotions. Adding to this, empathic concerns that push us to understand the others’ problems help us deliver the desired response based on an informed judgement. This is known as the Empathy-Altruism Theory. Lastly, across societies, the idea of selfless helping is deeply embedded as an individual social responsibility. Hence, people are socialized to display kindness, a trait that reproduces itself through generations and across cultures.

The pros of altruistic behaviour, though imperceptible to our conscious thought, weigh heavily on how we feel. Neurobiologists have proven that the brain’s reward and pleasure centers light up when one engages in an altruistic activity making humans ecstatic. It comes as a surprising revelation that people are more likely to help others when in bad moods as such activities serve as mood liftening mechanisms. Studies have indicated that altruistic actions like volunteerism have often translated into increased happiness quotients, and stronger physical and mental health.

Hence, it’s evident that while helping others is a part of our basic biological structure, it is also a trait that is nourished through social experience. Within academic circles, amongst doctors, scientists and philosophers the question of whether true altruism actually exists has been variedly debated. And while this shall remain an ongoing debate of questionable perspectives, my experience has shown that the common sensical view of a majority tilts in favour of the existence of truly selfless good deeds. As a country battling a healthcare crisis, India has been witness to remarkable tales of pure kindness that seem to be indicative of help that doesn’t bring any apparent advantage to the helper. The sacrifice of Narayan Dabhalkar, an 85 year old man who gave up his hospital bed and eventually his life to save another 40 year old man provides a case in point.

Among the several questions that can’t be answered through a single crisp explanation is the question of whether selfless good deeds actually exist. While one belief is that altruism based on empathy is truly altruistic, this article also takes you through several inherently selfish motives that prompt helpful actions and hopefully shall take you on a quest to finding your own answer.

Shaivie Sharma

Delhi South '22

Shaivie is a student of history from Jesus and Mary College. She's a lover of mountain tops and colorful skies and will often be found humming hindi songs while counting stars or visiting yet another hidden corner of Delhi. Her writing draws heavily from her life's vulnerabilities. She's highly susceptible to changing her bio every week for every week leads to self discovery.
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