Do Good To Feel Good

Why it's ok that altruism doesn't work

“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.” - Khalil Gibran

I often talk to people - in writing, in conversation, to clients and while speaking at conferences - about the importance of giving back.

When I talk about this there is one key message I always share.

Giving back does not - and in most cases should not - be a completely altruistic activity.

Think of the last time you did something kind for another person. Maybe you held the door for someone behind you, gave a stranger directions, volunteered your time to a local food bank, animal or homeless shelter, offered your services or office space to a nonprofit, helped a friend in need, made a donation. Think of one of those activities in your recent past.

Do you have one in mind? Good.

Now think about how it made you feel. Completely selfless? Void of emotion? Did you feel nothing?

I’d like to venture - indeed argue - that you didn’t feel those things. Instead, I imagine you felt something else. Proud of yourself or humbled, maybe grounded or re-centered, perhaps happy or joyous.

Maybe it even led you a selfish outcome. Many people have told me about how volunteering through work gave them access to senior leadership they wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with and that helped contribute to a promotion. Companies create communication plans around corporate social responsibility, sustainable supply chain activities and social impact to talk about what they do. Some people donate to nonprofits for tax breaks. That’s not selfless. But is it any less appreciated or valuable? Yet some say they don’t feel like they are doing as much as they can because their end result isn’t an altruistic emotion.

The definition of altruism is, “the belief or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” The very sentence description in Webster’s is “some may choose to work with vulnerable elderly people out of altruism.”

That’s nice but that’s not how I feel at all when I do something for someone else. I feel great, like my spirit is lifted and I’m being the best version of myself in that moment. I usually find that my mind clears, I’m not thinking about work or my perceived problems or the stresses in my life, I’m usually not thinking about anything but what I’m doing. It’s like a meditation because in that moment, I’m still.

I used to feel guilty about this. I would think to myself that I should feel altruistic and that somehow feeling good made my contributions somehow less impactful.

If I leave the world with one message, I’d like it to be this. You should feel something when you do something kind for someone else. It means you’re human. It means you’re alive and it means that you’re creating positive experiences and memories that you’ll want to repeat over and over again.

When I wrote The Giving Manifesto that is the message I had in mind. Give to whomever and whatever your heart desires. Don’t hold back or place judgement or think about all the other things you could be doing, just focus on what you can do and be happy about that. Don’t think about the future “some days” - think about today.

Wishing everyone a beautiful week. In between client work, I’m spending mine in Upstate New York on Hill Hollow Farm where I’m lending my two hands to a farm family in need.


This essay is from my weekly newsletter. My newsletter provides stories and thoughtful essays around how to give back - to yourself, to others, to your community and the world around you. Most of these are exclusive to my newsletter (and are not on my blog/RSS feed/other outlets). To receive more weekly essays like this, sign up here.

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