Are there no selfless good deeds?


Lately I have been thinking a lot about Joey’s statement in one of the episodes of Friends, where he denies the existence of any selfless good deeds. He argues that any selfless act makes you feel good and hence ceases to be one. We tend to do things which makes us happy. If not immediate, then with a hope that it would reap benefits sometime in the future. Our existence can be defined as a quest for happiness. I don’t think there is anyone out there who wants to experience all the misery in this world. If there is, I am pretty sure that would make him/her happy. So is Joey true? Are there really no selfless deeds?

We can see this argument in another perspective. It’s not that all selfless deeds have a hidden motive. The truth is all deeds have a motive. You eat because you are hungry. You exercise to stay healthy. Every act of ours has a cause or a need. Drinking beer or eating ice cream is not necessary to stay alive. But we continue to do it for that momentous feeling of elation and satisfaction. The need to stay happy is one of the primal instincts humans have. Happiness drives everything we do.

Then there are acts where one endures great pain for others. It seems illogical for a soldier to die for his country. What made those countless brave men in history to fight for their respective nations? Why did people protest until their dying breath for various reforms in their society? The answers go beyond any rational thought. It is possible that they had associated their happiness with that of their fellow countrymen. Their life’s goal was protection of their land and well-being of the posterity.

Recently, I was watching BBC Life TV series ( Watch it!). A giant Pacific octopus settles down in a safe den carrying fertilized eggs. She nurtures and protects them from other predators. She doesn’t ever break her guard or leave the den. Without food, she gradually starves to death. A poison dart frog climbs a tall tree with her tadpoles on her back, looking for particular plant where she can safely drop off her children. It is like a mother carrying her newly born and climbing the Empire state building. The frog makes multiple trips up and down the tree to provide her children with food. These are just a few examples in which animals show great care for their children. This true among humans too. It is still a bit self-centered, because you care for your off-springs and not others’.

For past few weeks, I have been part of an organisation which is working on education and rehabilitation of the poor and mentally challenged kids. Why am I doing it? I just wanted to be of some help. We feel happy when we are able to help somebody. This is a strange trait with us, human beings. There are studies which show that instead of a company donating a lump sum amount to a charity on behalf of the employees, if employees themselves are allowed to do it individually, it increases employee satisfaction. What is the reason? Why do we care for our loved ones more than ourselves?  Is it because it affirms the idea of us being good? Why do we want others to think that we are good, caring and polite? If every act of our’s, is a tool to modify our social image, then an action can become selfless if it does not affect others’ perception of us.

We might already be living in a world where Joey is true. But honestly I don’t think it is a bad thing. On the other hand, it would totally freak me out if one’s actions does not have any motive. Finding meaning in everything helps us maintain our illusion that we exist for a reason. It is essential for keeping us sane and hopeful.