Published: Sunday July 20, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday July 21, 2014 MYT 2:30:58 PM

Doing charity work is beneficial to yourself

Research has shown that being kind to others is good for you.

While at a buka puasa event whose guest list included children from a local orphanage, I saw a young girl decline an offer to be served nasi briyani. She said, no thank you, we’ve already been to three events this month which all served the same dish.

Religious requirements to do good are obviously mandatory, but I’m sure many will also say they do it out of compassion. But it’s also difficult to not be cynical when you see a Facebook page of a politician posting photos of himself attending one buka puasa event after another, each making sure the cheque being handed over is clearly in focus.

Still, doing good for others may be biologically hard-wired into our brains. A study of 15-month old babies showed that, even at that age, they showed the capacity to want to help. They also seem to recognise situations that are unfair, such as when cookies are not equally distributed between two people. (However, it’s not clear if they think Cookie Monster is an intrinsically evil creature.)

There have been many attempts to rationalise altruistic behaviour. One way of making sense of this is to say that even though you think you are doing something for someone else (and getting nothing back), at the end of the day you’re still doing it for yourself – because it’ll make you “feel good”.

Psychiatrist Danial Batson has expanded this and modelled reasons for altruism on a scale that runs from “good for the self” to “good for others”, “good for the community” and ultimately “good because of moral reasons”. Interestingly, his hypothesis is that people do good because empathy drives that behaviour, not because of selfish motives.

But let me suggest that if doing charity work is beneficial to yourself, then that might be good enough. Research has shown that being kind to others is good for you, both mentally and physically. Studies find that people engaged in altruistic activity are more likely to experience positive emotions and have good mental health. There is even evidence that being altruistic correlates to better living habits and longer lives.

Except, of course, you don’t actually have to be doing any good to get these benefits – you only need to believe it. All the positive aspects to the self outlined above should probably hold even if you’re not being effective in your charity work.

Paradoxically, one of the problems of giving without expecting anything in return is that you may not take too much care in checking how effective your contributions are at the end of the day. I doubt anybody gave the orphans a customer satisfaction survey to fill in at the end of the night.

And here we reach the crux: If you know somebody isn’t being particularly effective in their voluntarism, should you point it out to them?

I would like to argue that leaving them in the dark could be more beneficial than pointing out the flaws in their work. The impact an individual’s voluntary contribution makes to a charity is normally quite small in the context of things (unless we’re talking about somebody like Bill Gates) but the resulting positivity that individual will bring to all aspects of their life will affect those around them in a good way.

In fact, although there are health benefits in altruistic behaviour, there are exceptions when you go to extremes. If the volunteer work is stressful and demanding, and the person feels the burden of over-expectation, then the benefits discussed earlier turn into negative thoughts, stress and poorer physical health. So telling a person they’re doing a bad job will not significantly help the charity, and you are also left with the downside that they, as an individual, will suffer too.

However, if they are blissfully ignorant, then despite being ineffective in their charity work, there will still be an overall positive impact as a whole. The person will be happier and healthier, their overall productivity goes up, and that must be good for their whole community. It’s like a win-win-win scenario.

So, at the end of the day, I think the organisers of the buka puasa at the orphanage didn’t know how unappreciated their efforts were. Sometimes it’s good enough to do good – just as long as nobody tells you how bad you are at it.

Tags / Keywords: Charity, Donation, Volunteer, Hari Raya

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