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How Much Should a Sense of Purpose Be About Ourselves—and How Much About Others?

At first blush the answer to this question is easy.  A sense of purpose should be oriented toward others.  Right?  Of course right.  The social norm of reciprocity—that we should help those who help us—demands it.  So does the norm of social responsibility—that we should help those who need help.  The ethical principle of beneficence—that engaging in acts of kindness, mercy, and charity are a moral obligation—is typically considered a universal good.  Arguably most people, when asked to describe “the good life” and “the good society,” envision themselves surrounded by supportive, caring people who they both help and are helped by, in a community in which people are generous to each other and do their part to support the common good.  And despite all their differences, the major world religions (and for that matter, the new atheists) tend to agree on the importance of the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Developing and pursuing an other-oriented sense of purpose is simply the right thing to do.

But isn’t it also good for us?  Better for us than pursuing self-focused goals?  Psychologists are well-equipped to answer such questions, by applying the methods of science to assess self- and other-oriented goals, motives, attitudes and behaviors, and examining how they relate to various outcomes. They have done so rather vigorously.

For example, psychologists have examined the role that materialistic goals play on people’s attitudes, behavior, and well-being.  Materialistic goals are as self-focused as it gets; they focus on accruing power, status, pleasure, and wealth. This research demonstrates that people with materialistic goals tend to place a lot of value on financial security and not so much on relationships. Highly materialistic people have been shown to donate less money to charity and churches, give less to family, and spend more on themselves, compared to less materialistic people.  People with materialistic goals also tend to have lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, and greater sense of envy, compare to less materialistic people.

Or consider a study by my colleague Michael Steger and two of his collaborators. They followed a group of 65 college students over three weeks, each day requiring them to report on their activity and rate their happiness and general mood.  After they had collected the data, the researchers split the reported activities into two groups.  The first group consisted of self-focused actions that were tied to immediate feelings of pleasure—things like getting drunk, getting high on drugs, or having sex purely for immediate gratification.  The second group consisted of actions that were tied to other-oriented goals, such as volunteering, giving money to someone in need, or listening carefully to another person.  Which types of activities made people feel happiest?  Results revealed that students who engaged in other-oriented activities on a particular day were more likely to be happy and in a good mood–not just on the day they engaged in the activity, but on the next day, too.

Pursuing other-oriented purposes within particular life domains also reaps benefits.  For example, studies that have investigated this question within the work context show that service employees who sense that their work benefits others seem relatively protected from burnout and dissatisfaction, and that having contact with people who benefit from one’s work increases motivation and performance among telephone solicitors.  Wanting one’s work to help others has been linked to a greater sense of career optimism and ability to successfully navigate work-related challenges. Furthermore, the desire for one’s work to help others is related to higher levels of cooperation, job performance, and satisfaction with work tasks regardless of available rewards.  And when people shape their job in ways that enhance a sense of contribution to other’s well-being, a greater sense of meaningfulness typically results.  The causal arrows seem to point in both directions—happy people are more likely to help others, just as helping others brings us happiness.

So pursuing an other-oriented sense of purpose is the right thing to do, plus it’s good for us.  Presumably it’s good for the people who benefit from our altruistic efforts, too.  Still, the question is not as straightforward as it seems.  There is reason to question whether it’s even possible to pursue truly other-oriented goals.  Anthropologists report that ancient communities that maximized their ability to help one another tended to survive and prosper, whereas those that didn’t inevitably failed.  Did our ancestors help each other out of a spirit of selfless giving?  Or did they figure out that serving each other leads to the community’s survival and, as a result, to individual survival?  To love one’s neighbor is, in this way, a means of ensuring self-protection.

Perhaps more concretely (and cynically), some argue that we never really are selfless when we engage in helping behavior.  Instead, we help others with the self-centered intent of making ourselves feel good–or least less bad.  Let’s say you see a little boy fall off his bike and scrape up his knee.  He’s crying and is in obvious pain, so you rush out with disinfectant and a bandage, soothing him and patching him up.  Are you really doing this out of selfless compassion?  Or, are you helping him because his suffering makes you feel really uncomfortable, and helping is what you need to do to reduce your discomfort?  On a broader scale, perhaps you are motivated by a sense of purpose to use science to make the world better, to help other people reach their potential in the classroom, or to add beauty to the world through art.  To what extent are you pursuing this purpose to relieve a sense of guilt, or to sublimate neurotic anxiety, or to experience a sense of pride, or to garner praise or reciprocation?

There are logical problems with this argument. Most significantly, as David Myers and others have pointed out, it suffers from an explaining-by-naming circularity. If someone pursues an other-oriented purpose to, say, run a disaster relief organization and then experiences joy as a result, the temptation is to explain her prosocial behavior by naming the reward it brings.  (Therein lies the circularity: Why does someone pursue an other-oriented purpose? To satisfy selfish desires. How do you know she does so to satisfy selfish desires?  Because she wouldn’t pursue such a purpose otherwise.) Furthermore, social psychologists have found that when feelings of empathy are aroused, people usually are willing to go out of their way to help, even when escaping the situation offers an easier way to reduce distress. When feeling empathy, we focus less on our own distress and more on the needs of the one suffering.  Empathy has been found to spur helping behavior even when people believe no one will else know about their helping, but only when people think the sufferer will actually receive the needed help. Such evidence suggests that perhaps sometimes people do genuinely focus on others’ welfare rather than their own.

Nevertheless, let’s assume that there is always some amount of personal pleasure, or relief of inner distress, when giving of ourselves to others.  Does this make other-oriented goals less virtuous? Mother Teresa was once asked if her seemingly genuine happiness working among the untouchables in Calcutta was a put-on: “Oh no, not at all. Nothing makes you happier when you really reach out in mercy to someone who is badly hurt.” Does the fact that she experienced such immense pleasure in her caregiving make her sense of purpose less admirable? To the contrary—I believe it is a credit to humans (or more accurately, if your worldview permits, to their Creator) that we find personal joy in helping others.  Indeed, a strong case can be made that people only find true satisfaction, joy, and purpose when they give of themselves. This possibility is suggested by Richard Rohr and Joseph Martos, who wrote that “paradoxically, personal fulfillment means abandoning ourselves and putting others first…ultimate satisfaction is promised to those who give up their desire for self-satisfaction.” Writing within the Christian tradition, they point to the person of Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of this, one who taught that to find life we must be willing to lose our lives—before demonstrating this himself (“…with the joy set before him,” the writer of Hebrews notes) by willingly enduring crucifixion. Recognizing this paradox, Christians describe Christ as most glorified in his sacrifice.

There are practical matters to consider (e.g., does using self-promotion to “build a platform” serve as a worthy strategy to increase one’s prosocial impact?).  But to my students, my children, and to myself, I ask these questions: In what ways are you using your gifts to make a meaningful difference in the world?  How can you strive to do so more effectively? The more a sense of purpose is oriented toward others, the more we discover of ourselves, and the more our lives are infused with joy.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it possible to satisfy self- and other-oriented purposes simultaneously? How?
  2. To what extent is it countercultural to pursue an other-oriented purpose?
  3. Is anything we do ever really selfless?

Discussion Summary

In my response to the question “How much should a sense of purpose be about ourselves—and how much about others?,” I suggested that pursuing an other-oriented sense of purpose is the right thing to do, plus it’s good for us.  Then I brought to the fore the classic debate about whether it is possible to do anything in a truly selfless way.  The essay’s take-home point was that it is a credit to humans that we feel good when we serve others, and that we discover more of our selves when we do so, and therefore we should serve others all the more.  The discussion that followed was engaging and nuanced, and pointed to several thought-provoking themes.

The question of whether anything we do is ever really selfless has garnered much debate over the years, but seemed more or less settled to many commenters in the thread.  Several pointed to how evolution has left humans with a biologically-rooted impulse to experienced empathy and serve others, leaving us, in the words of one commenter, with a “very profound physical connection to one another and more broadly to nature.” As Professor Roy Baumeister pointed out, we can count it a blessing that we feel good even when we engage in sacrificial acts that help others at our own expense, in no small part because doing so has allowed groups to flourish over the millennia, just as it does today.  It is hard to argue with Baumeister’s assertion that we ought to admire people who help others the most “even if—indeed, especially if—they get the most pleasure from their good works.”  Of course, it is still the case that many people balk at opportunities to help others if doing so seems inconvenient or likely to cause discomfort. Similarly, as another commenter noted, modern society tends to rewards rich and powerful materialists, and lift them up as role models for us to admire.  All this raises another important question for discussion: Especially given how good it feels to do good, how can we encourage ourselves and others to pursue other-oriented purposes more often?

A second theme took a theological direction, and questioned the interpretation of Christ’s death as an act of self-abandonment. Instead, as Véronique Delocroix noted, “the Christian scriptures do not primarily depict Jesus as dying because of his own concern for others but out of obedience to and faith in God the Father.” This is an important point that, I agree, is often overlooked or misunderstood, even by many practicing Christians. I expressed that it reminds me of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s teaching that people are not called principally to self-abandonment, but rather “to glorify God and enjoy him forever”—altruism being a key way of pursuing this.  Véronique’s suggestion of replacing self-sacrifice as the paradigm for altruism with lovemaking, an action that at its best involves experiencing self-satisfaction in an order of magnitude proportional to one’s focus on and love for the other, is provocative.  Once one gets past the Freudian irony of this point of comparison, it may well “open a space for deeper consideration of how the excellence essential to actions themselves mediates and (re)defines the motives of actors and their relationships to beneficiaries.” Hence this question for discussion: In what tangible ways might an other-oriented sense of purpose offer the best path to self-realization?

Finally, a third theme shifted the question from the individual level of analysis to the societal level.  One of the first commenters suggested that it may not be so obvious that people should focus on other-oriented purposes, because self-oriented purposes have had many societal benefits, such as lowering purchase cost and improving the quality of products and services.  This aptly points out the value of social and economic structures like capitalism, which despite its flaws and collateral damage (e.g., alienation, materialism) has clearly had a positive economic impact on societies in a “rising tide lifts all boats” way. However, as another commenter expressed, given the earth’s finite resources, this system is unsustainable long-term without major corrections to it. Focusing less on economic growth as the end-all and more on policies that promote health and well-being is important, but what will actually work? At the heart of this theme is the question: What can societies do to ignite a shared focus on better addressing substantive (rather than superficial) human needs? These are challenging questions with undoubtedly complex answers, for which creative solutions are needed—solutions that begin by engaging these questions together.