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Goodness gracious them

The problem with do-gooders feeling good about doing good is that they do have a knack of being used by people.

india Updated: May 07, 2007 04:34 IST

The Bible was there first, but let’s give psychologist Michael Steger of the University of Louiseville the benefit of the doubt. The good doctor has conducted research and has found out what they would have told you at the Missionaries of Charity anyway: you’ll feel good if you’re a do-gooder. Evolutionary biology tells us that goodness became codified as a virtue not because that makes boys and girls go to heaven or because of a subliminal pleasure principle, but because over millions of years, people have become hardwired to expect people to be good to them if they are good towards them. Sounds like selfish tit-for-tat? Well, if a little selfishness can create that kind of love that makes the world go round, that’s swell.

In Prof Steger’s controlled experiment, he asked subjects how much “purpose” they felt their lives had each day and whether they felt happy or sad. People leading a hedonistic, pleasure-seeking life seemed to be less happy in the long-run than their good samaritan counterparts. But hang on, could it be possible that one of the criteria for being an intelligent pleasure-seeker is to project oneself as being a good person even while maintaining a Machiavellian interior?

The problem with do-gooders feeling good about doing good is that they do have a knack of being used by people — giving rise to that famous PT Barnum line about a sucker being born every minute. And the beauty is that do-gooders never feel bad about being used but actually feel happier instead. Which gives the happy suckers their real scientific name: masochists. And there are plenty of do-badders to help them.