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Friday, May 22, 2015


I used to believe that everyone who gave to charity was an altruist in the truest sense of the word. Unselfishly devoted to the welfare of others, as opposed to egoist. Sure, I'd hear them brag, and they seemed so proud, but pride and generosity are not mutually exclusive personality traits, and a virtue like giving can coexist with a vice like being proud because of it. But how many charitable donations come from those who practice dishonest professions? Like investment bankers, who a recent study published in the November issue of Nature suggest work in an industry that "weakens and undermines the honesty norm," according to one of the authors.

Does giving a drop off the top of money a person comes by dishonestly make him feel okay about the devious means used to earn the 98% he keeps? (About 85% of Americans donate less than 2 percent of their income to charity, according to a great article in this month's issue of The Atlantic.) And how many of us give with strings attached, or help others simply to feel better about ourselves?

Call me a pessimist, but this distrust of the ulterior motives of even the goodest Samaritan echoes the teachings of many philosophers and mystics, who say that one should avoid donating to charity or engaging in sweeping acts of kindness and public service because of the egoism involved. Most altruists are really doing it for themselves, not for so-called unfortunate others. And if looked at this way, selflessness is actually a form of selfishness.

(One exception. To the kind man who not long ago picked me up by the side of the road after I'd fallen off my bike and broken my leg: Joel, you are an angel.)

Personally, I never give money to charity because I hardly have any money and because I assume that most organizations, even so-called non-profits and not-for-profits, are all schemes to extract your money by manipulating your emotions only to pocket the goodness of your heart in tax-free dollars and cents. I mean, does the dollar I'd like to be used to buy food for that starving child with the sad eyes in the wasteland setting of a remote continent actually enter his mouth in a form he can digest, or does it go to the maker of the commercial in which the child appears, as cash? Take that to the bank.

Am I being too suspicious? Hardly. Recent studies involving stroke patients are proving that the giver, in giving, also gets a great deal. Particularly, patients whose cerebrovascular accident involves the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that helps with social reasoning and weighing different courses of action, show a tendency to give give away everything they have, despite the family problems this causes. They give until they have nothing left. When asked why, these accidental altruists say because it makes them feel good.

It turns out that in these patients, and in everyone who gives, fMRI scans reveal an increase in activity in the mesolimbic system of the brain, the area governing animalistic pleasure centers, which usually light up in the presence of food, sex and drugs like cocaine. Because stroke patients lack inhibition from the higher centers, they are free to cater freely to the dictates of the pleasure circuits, and to give until it hurts. Giving as indulging in junk food, or a few bumps of cocaine, as the case may be, prompting scientists to call it pathological generosity. These individuals are addicted to philanthropy, and their numbers may be greater than most neurologists realize, since most doctors are like most people and don't regard increased charitable giving as a negative side effect. So it goes largely ignored.

This is not to say that giving doesn't serve a valuable purpose in society. Normal giving brings people together and encourages acts of reciprocity. It fosters cohesion within groups, and leads to cooperation. Indeed evolutionists believe this is why generosity took root in the human brain in the first place. Kin selection is the term used to explain instances in which a person puts others, like her siblings, before herself. Helping one's siblings survive may sacrifice a person's well-being in the short term, but will ultimately boost the chances of your genes being carried on in the future.

And group selection explains how those who cooperate with each other, and who give without expecting personal reward, tend to fare better in tasks like waging war and hunting game, allowing them to survive and become the progenitors of our race. So we are hard-wired to give, and this is a good thing. But that good feeling you get when you give, that sense of exhilaration? That's the dopamine flooding your system. The same dopamine that comes with illicit sex, drugs and pizza, and shopping sprees too.

So in generosity you may be getting just as much as you give, if not more. But at least you are giving. And considering the risks involved in indulging in vices, not just to your pocketbook but to your health too, the next time you are looking for that quick fix, instead of reaching for the cookie jar, remember that altruism, with your time, your money or your wisdom, is the safest bet.

And remember that charity does start at home, as they say. 'Course, if you want to give to the homeless, helpless or poor, there's probably a stranger waiting on a corner near you. Go put food directly in his hand. That way you know your money is well-spent. If you give him those cookies you thought about eating, you've saved some calories as well. Give to get I guess.

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