We conversed, my “girlfriend” and I, about the extent to which altruism may be an expression of egoism. I questioned whether, when we do good for other people, our primary motivator might be as much the pursuit of self-satisfaction as it is the welfare of others. That is, do we do good because of what it does for others or because of what it does for our self-esteem and sense of personal value? As much as I want the motive to be the welfare of others, I have not been able to shake the sense that it’s equally, or more, the senses of accomplishment and self-satisfying morality it brings to us. That attitude is the mental framework of a skeptic. And I don’t like it. I don’t like thinking I help others because of how it makes me feel about myself. I want to believe in “pure” altruism; the pursuit of doing good for the sake of expanding goodness in the world.

Eventually, I came around to her perspective. That is, it’s okay to feel good about oneself when one does good for others. It’s simply a matter of reinforcing good behavior; do good, get a “treat” of positive self-reinforcement. This morning, as I researched the matter online, I came across the following statement in an article by Christine L. Carter, Ph.D., ” I think of kindness like laughter: we might be laughing because we want someone else to feel good about their joke, but mostly we laugh because it feels good. Like laughter, kindness is a terrific happiness habit, good for both our physical and emotional well-being.” Neither my position, nor the one held by Dr. Carter, are new. But it keeps coming up and researchers keep applying various measures to determine whether altruism is truly altruistic. Repeatedly, they find that it is. As a whole, people enjoy doing good for others because they want to do good and it makes them feel better about themselves. And there’s nothing wrong with rewarding one’s own good behavior.

Coming around to that perspective does something else, though. At least it did for me. It tends to overcome the sense that being the recipient of “good deeds” is less an indication of how others feel about you than it is an indication of how good they want to feel about themselves. People want to do good because doing good is good and it feels good.  In a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh,

“…researchers asked 45 volunteers to perform a task that involved “giving support” in some way. During the task, they had the chance to win rewards for someone close to them, for charity or for themselves. Participants felt better and more socially connected if their support resulted in a reward for someone else.”

In that same study, “direct support was linked to a decreased activity in the fear center of the brain,” the amygdala. Ultimately, whether we behave as we do (in positive ways) because of how it makes us feel or because of how it makes others feel, the impact is the same. People benefit in positive ways from our actions and behaviors. And the evidence suggests that we get more benefits when we do good for people close to us. So, when people do good for you, it’s probably because they want your experience to be better in some way as a result of your actions. In other words, they feel close to you. You matter to them. And, adding my own two cents to the mix, doing good for people you don’t know probably helps to cement the sense that “we’re all in this together.” It’s enough to bring tears to one’s hypersensitive eyes.


We had a magnificent day yesterday. Despite the electricity being out when we went to the grocery store, despite being told the reason for the power outage was an auto accident, and despite being inconvenienced by those matters, we enjoyed an impromptu exploration of the world around us. My IC directed me up Peaceful Valley Road (off Fox Pass Cutoff), where we saw several houses in semi-rural areas that must have beautiful views. And she directed me to Smokin’ in Style, a BBQ restaurant on the far west side of Hot Springs, where we enjoyed a very early dinner of ribs, cole slaw, and fries, along with a cheap pitcher of beer. And we shopped at a Kroger store that seemed utterly foreign because its layout was completely different from what we’ve been used to. And we came home to a little dog that was delighted to see us. And we spent time on the back porch/deck, sipping a French rosé from Provence and listening to an ever-louder chorus of insects, punctuated at times by the boom of distant fireworks (some of which we could see). I am in love with my place in the universe, thanks in no small measure to a beautiful woman who surprises me constantly with her wisdom and wit and charm. I am a very, very lucky man these days.


Today will be the first day of in-person church in about sixteen months. The opportunity to sit with friends and experience the appreciation we all have for one another will be a welcome return to something I never really valued. At least not until I finally came to realize that church is not about a deity or lack thereof and it’s not about metaphysics or some abstruse form of spirituality. It’s entirely about people and relationships. While some churches may plunge into the more abstract and difficult to fathom passages of the Bible, mine explores ideas and facts and human decency. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about humanity and the intrinsic goodness of people in general by allowing myself to open up to the reality that church is what I make it for myself. It is as much a home to an old atheist as it is to a fresh-faced Baptist believer. There’s as much depth in church as I am willing to give it.


When the rasping sound of insects and the noise of loud cars sounds like a symphony…
When smoke on the horizon prompts an appreciation for combustible cast-offs…
When abandoned toilets and tractor tires seem more art than refuse…
When the odor of a skunk resembles the aroma of fresh coffee and cinnamon rolls…
When the universe that once seemed intent on crushing one’s soul suddenly smiles and caresses one’s cheek…
Life takes a sharp turn for the better.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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