Are You A Good Per­son?


Men's Health (Singapore) - - ON THE COVER -

The an­swer might not be as easy to an­swer as you think.


I THINK I’M A nice guy. Or I thought I was. So when my ed­i­tors (smirk­ingly) pro­posed I do an al­tru­is­tic chal­lenge (“You need to be good for a month— give money to beg­gars, vol­un­teer at a soup kitchen, help old ladies across the street”), I was slightly wor­ried.

I mean, how much nicer can I pos­si­bly be? Or, at least, with­out be­com­ing very dull? I al­ready help friends move, pick up a round at the bar. I’m the one—me!—who gets up to com­fort our one-year-old when he wakes up at night, scream­ing like a baby Steven Tyler who’s caught his head in a gate. I re­cy­cle. I bought a re­us­able cof­fee cup. It’s around here some­where . . . I’m prac­ti­cally a saint.

But then I tell my wife about the story. “Ooh,” she says, “that’s hard. You can be pretty self­ish.”

“What? No, I can’t. You can!”


“I let peo­ple in in traf­fic. You don’t even drive!” “No,” she says. “You swear at ev­ery­one. You have ter­ri­ble road rage; it’s scary. You only ever do what you want to do. We hardly ever see my friends.” “But they’re bor–”

“You won’t go out un­less it’s to the bar across the road. You only va­ca­tion where there’s surf. You went on a surf trip when I was seven months preg­nant! Surf­ing is a self­ish sport. And you have to ‘win’ ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion. You’re do­ing it now.”

“That’s not . . . oh.”

So maybe I’m a self-de­scribed saint like Kanye is a self-de­scribed mes­siah. But can a car­toon­ishly un-self-aware man-child with clod­dish ten­den­cies and min­i­mal im­pulse con­trol turn the corner in just a month?


BUT WHY EVEN try to be good? Surely it’s bet­ter to laugh with the sin­ners than cry with the saints. Even evo­lu­tion teaches us this prin­ci­ple. The self­ish gene. The preser­va­tion in­stinct. Ethi­cists may name it “ego­ism,” but ev­ery­one else calls it “so­ci­ety.” Self­ish­ness—it’s just what we’re born to do. That af­ter­noon, ex­pect­ing to con­firm it’s what we’re born to do, I be­gin Googling. Looks like I’m in for a po­lite awak­en­ing.

While there is no self­less gene, there are genes that pro­mote be­hav­iour we call “al­tru­ism”— be­hav­iour in­tended to help an­other with­out ben­e­fit to one­self. These are the kinds of ac­tions that fas­ci­nate Abi­gail Marsh, Ph.D., as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. Marsh was one of the first re­searchers to look for in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in real-world al­tru­is­tic be­hav­iour, par­tic­u­larly the crazy, you-must- be-a-saint-or-alu­natic forms of self-sac­ri­fice: anony­mously do­nat­ing an or­gan to a to­tal stranger.

“What I found,” Marsh says, “is that a spe­cific part of the brain cor­re­sponds to in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in al­tru­ism: the amyg­dala.” That’s the al­mond-shaped struc­ture in your head re­spon­si­ble for things like emo­tional re­sponses, mem­ory, and de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Turns out some peo­ple (crazy or­gan donors) have a larger amyg­dala than the rest of us—as much as 8 per­cent big­ger. Oth­ers


(psy­chopaths) have on av­er­age a smaller amyg­dala.

Po­ten­tial psy­chopa­thy aside, this seems like great news, con­firm­ing my se­cret maxim that noth­ing I do is ac­tu­ally my fault. But then Marsh tells me ge­net­ics only ac­counts for half of al­tru­is­tic or “pro-so­cial” be­hav­iour. The rest is pre­dicted through life ex­pe­ri­ences, and as it turns out (psy­chopaths not in­cluded) we all be­gin with a pretty self­less ca­pac­ity. “We’ve evolved to rely less on sheer phys­i­cal­ity and more on so­cial abil­i­ties,” says Marsh. As a weak and slow species, we need each other. This is why chil­dren will in­stinc­tively try to help strangers. My ar­gu­men­ta­tive ammo is run­ning low. Okay, fine. I con­cede. Maybe we aren’t born self­ish. But hey, self­ish­ness works in the long run . . . right? Wrong again.

Ac­cord­ing to Marsh, ev­i­dence abounds for how help­ing oth­ers im­proves our men­tal and phys­i­cal well-be­ing. Stud­ies have shown that tu­tor­ing chil­dren can boost your stamina, mem­ory, and phys­i­cal flex­i­bil­ity while re­duc­ing lev­els of de­pres­sion. Sim­i­larly, a study in So­cial Sci­ence & Medicine re­ported that peo­ple who do reg­u­lar vol­un­teer work spend 38 per­cent fewer nights in the hos­pi­tal than those who don’t lift a fin­ger for oth­ers. And if that doesn’t sway you to give your time, then con­sider this: Per­form­ing un­paid com­mu­nity ser­vice low­ers your risk of mor­tal­ity by a stag­ger­ing 24 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to re­search pub­lished in Psy­chol­ogy and Ag­ing. In short: The good do not die young.

Turn­ing over in bed that night: “I’m go­ing to die young.”

My wife smiles.

“I’m se­ri­ous. I’m not com­mu­ni­ty­minded. I hate peo­ple.” “You’ll be fine,” she replies from the far side of the mat­tress. Then she chuck­les, not very nicely, and goes to sleep.


I EASE MY WAY into the good life. First, I start drink­ing fair-trade cof­fee, even though I’m sus­pi­cious of “fair trade.” I also (mostly) stop eat­ing meat. (Mostly) not eat­ing meat is aw­ful. But cows are boil­ing the planet to death with farts, and pigs are smarter than tod­dlers. An­i­mal ethics: check.

On foot, I pick up each scrap of lit­ter I find, some­times ar­riv­ing at my des­ti­na­tion with arm­fuls of plas­tic bags, my fists crammed with other peo­ple’s cig­a­rette butts. I look for old ladies who need help cross­ing the street. I find none.

On the road, I in­vite idiots to merge, even when they’ve ob­vi­ously had the chance to change lanes for like one kilo­me­tre but only do so 12m be­fore the turn. Over­all, I feel a small, blos­som­ing sense of pride . . . and a grow­ing, su­pe­rior smug­ness. (Long life, here I come!) But it’s a lot of work, and meet­ings are far worse when a dozen wet-slug cig­a­rette butts fall out of your pocket as you pull out your phone. Your phone that was made by sui­ci­dal Chi­nese work­ers, and your pocket that was sewn to your trouser leg by im­pov­er­ished Bangladeshi urchins. Sud­denly I don’t feel so smug. Ev­ery­where I turn, an­other mo­ral dilemma. Where must the giv­ing stop?

Hop­ing to an­swer this rid­dle, I pick up some Peter Singer, a fel­low Aussie and a util­i­tar­ian philoso­pher, some­one who should share my self­ish ends-over-means at­ti­tude. But Singer’s util­i­tar­i­an­ism is all about hap­pi­ness, and how to make more of it for more peo­ple—peo­ple who, it turns out, aren’t you. Singer’s ethics come with con­stant mo­ral re­spon­si­bil­ity. For ex­am­ple: Say you pass a drown­ing child on your walk home. Would you save him?

Of course. Would you save him if it meant ru­in­ing the $250 Yeezys you’re wear­ing? . . . Sure. What if the child were drown­ing in an­other coun­try and, in­stead of ru­in­ing shoes, you just had to mail $250? In both cases, you lose $250 and save a kid. If you’d ruin your Yeezys, why not send the check? Of course, things aren’t that straight­for­ward . . . right? Wrong once more.

Ac­cord­ing to GiveWell, a Money­ball-style non-profit ded­i­cated to see­ing which char­i­ties pro­vide the most bang for a donor’s buck, $1,000 can pur­chase 237 in­sec­ti­cide-treated nets to pro­tect peo­ple against malaria in the de­vel­op­ing world. Which is in­cred­i­ble! Ex­cept that it means Singer was right: Ev­ery time you choose a $250 pair of shoes over a $50 pair, you’re ba­si­cally de­cid­ing not to set aside and do­nate $200, which is equiv­a­lent to po­ten­tially giv­ing 47 peo­ple malaria. En­joy your Yeezys, a-hole.

I need some­thing more tan­gi­ble.


SO MAYBE DO­NAT­ING from afar and pick­ing up trash isn’t for me. Plus, I like one-on-one, be­ing able to see the crass con­sumers of the trash now con­geal­ing in my pocket. I de­cide to prop­erly vol­un­teer.

First, I try wrap­ping gifts at a depart­ment store. The cashier gives me the pur­chase, I wrap it for “free,” and the cus­tomer do­nates a dol­lar to char­ity. Sim­ple. Ex­cept my re­sults are all thumbs, sub­par, barely tol­er­a­ble.

This is when I discover that vol­un­teer­ing is hard. It’s not that there aren’t or­ga­ni­za­tions cry­ing out for help but that they want com­mit­ment, not just poverty tourism: a CEO wheel­ing his or her fam­ily to a soup kitchen to show their kids how good they have it.

Hop­ing re­li­gion might give me some mo­ral re­solve, I reach out to the Je­suits, the mis­sion­ary shock troops of the Catholic Church. If any reli­gious or­ga­ni­za­tion knows ser­vice, it’s them.

Mike Reddy cur­rently serves as pres­i­dent of the Je­suit Vol­un­teer Corps. He was a Je­suit Vol­un­teer in Los An­ge­les, liv­ing (mod­estly) in a house with four other vol­un­teers and serving as a case man­ager for Home­boy In­dus­tries, an em­ploy­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre for pre­vi­ously in­car­cer­ated or gang-af­fil­i­ated men and women. (A far cry from the Chicago sub­urbs where his par­ents raised him. He was also ac­cepted to med­i­cal school, which he ul­ti­mately de­cided to forgo and in­stead moved to L. A.)

“Peo­ple be­lieve ser­vice and vol­un­teerism should be zero-sum, a sit­u­a­tion where you give ev­ery­thing and get noth­ing,” Reddy ex­plains. “Ser­vice re­ally should be a joy­ful, mu­tual ex­pe­ri­ence. Ser­vice should not feel

like a bur­den. If it does, then you’re not do­ing it in the right way.” He says that the abil­ity to vol­un­teer is a priv­i­lege in it­self. Not ev­ery­one is able to take time off work or school (or for the sake of jour­nal­ism). The point is what we do with that priv­i­lege.

“The ques­tion you want to ask your­self,” says Reddy, “is ‘What have I done for peo­ple who aren’t me?’ ”

There are many ways to make the world a bet­ter place, Reddy tells me. Some in­volve ser­vice or char­i­ta­ble giv­ing, but some don’t. If you spend time with your fam­ily and you in­vest in your fam­ily, that’s a noble cause. You don’t have to give all the time.

And on that mod­est note, I em­bark on some true vol­un­teer­ing. Some­thing I can com­mit to but that doesn’t feel like a bur­den. I go back to school.


I CALL MY LO­CAL pri­mary school’s front of­fice and vol­un­teer my time. Af­ter an all-im­por­tant back­ground check (and brush­ing aside vague con­cerns that the school will think I’m some kind of de­viant), I’m ready to serve. Let the giv­ing be­gin.

For those of you with time and priv­i­lege and a school nearby look­ing for vol­un­teers, I can’t rec­om­mend this op­tion enough. A week af­ter call­ing, I’m sit­ting with a class of six-yearolds as they do ba­sic read­ing ex­er­cises and make let­ters out of Play-Doh. The next week, I’m on the play­ground at re­cess, de­stroy­ing 11- and 12-year-olds at hand­ball.

I get to know the kids by name. Who’s a sore loser. Who’s a bully. Who has a killer serve, and whom I there­fore have to foul out for some made-up rea­son. They call me “Mr. Smithurst.” It’s nice.

But it’s hard to shake the idea that my joy is self­ish, that I’m not do­ing it for the truly al­tru­is­tic rea­sons saintly vol­un­teers al­ways seem to pos­sess. Marsh, how­ever, seems to think that our al­tru­is­tic re­ward sys­tem is a pos­i­tive sign. Chan­nelling the Bud­dhist monk and molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist Matthieu Ri­card, she has con­sol­ing words for my guilt: “The very fact that we feel good when we help other peo­ple pre­sup­poses that we are al­tru­is­tic; if we weren’t built to be al­tru­is­tic, why would we feel good help­ing oth­ers?”

So maybe this car­toon­ishly un-self-aware man-child has some good in him af­ter all.

Even Miss Ju­lia, the teacher who has been watch­ing me dec­i­mate her chil­dren on the play­ground, seems to think that my be­ing there is salu­tary.

“The thing is, hav­ing a role model to play hand­ball with at lunchtime is re­ally valu­able,” she says.

“Be­cause they . . . need a hand­ball hero?” I ask.

“No, not to teach them to play hand­ball but how to get out,” she says. “How to lose. Like, ‘Whoa, you’re out, buddy—next!’ Be­cause they fight about it. They need a role model with those so­cial skills.”

What Miss Ju­lia says makes a lot of sense. Marsh had also been quick to point out the same kind of al­tru­is­tic domino ef­fect, the ef­fect the av­er­age per­son has on so­cial norms. Ac­cord­ing to her, peo­ple who ex­ist within a cul­ture where they ex­pect the av­er­age per­son to be trust­ing and help­ful will them­selves be trust­ing and help­ful. Why? “Be­ing a hu­man is com­pli­cated,” says Marsh. “And since life is full of these com­pli­cated de­ci­sions and choices, we take our cues from peo­ple around us. Just by be­ing good, you can help change the per­cep­tion of what the av­er­age per­son is like, and thereby al­ter oth­ers’ be­hav­iour.”

Can I change the world by be­ing a good sport? Maybe not the world, but at least how these kids treat one an­other on the play­ground. And I don’t need to write a mil­lion-dol­lar check or risk my Yeezys in a river to do this.

“We have an­other guy who comes in and does a boot camp,” Miss Ju­lia adds con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. “It’s fit­ness, and”—she grins—“all the rougher kids swear at him. But he just swears back at them. He’s ac­tu­ally ex-mil­i­tary; he’s a great swearer. But he takes no sh*t.”

Why! Miss Ju­lia! . . . Can I swear at the kids? Ab­so­lutely not.


THE MONTH winds down. I watch the bul­lies be­come less bul­ly­ing and the sore losers de­velop more grace. They’re works in progress. But I’m in­vested—more than I’d ever been, at any rate.

I’ve al­tered my be­hav­iour, I think, at least slightly. I now swear less in the car. I’ve bumped up my monthly con­tri­bu­tion to char­ity foun­da­tions. I’ve got an open in­vi­ta­tion back to the school.

I’ve been nicer around my wife, too. When I get home, I ask her about her day. I’ve booked us a meal at an ac­tual restau­rant. It doesn’t even have TVs on the wall. It’s not even near our house!

“You know,” I say, hav­ing been care­ful not to mansplain the tiramisu, or to talk over her when she vents, “I am very lucky to have you. You’re a great mother. I love you. And you look amaz­ing in that dress.”

She eyes me sus­pi­ciously. “This is an old dress,” she says.

“It’s amaz­ing,” I re­peat.

“Are you still be­ing nice for that ar­ti­cle?” “I’m fin­ished.”

“Why are you be­ing so nice?” she asks. “Stop it.”

We should go on a va­ca­tion, I sug­gest. A ro­man­tic get­away. King Is­land, maybe. Wild and ro­man­tic, off the shoul­der of Tas­ma­nia. Or Mar­garet River, the fa­bled wine re­gion of Western Aus­tralia.

Bali, per­haps? Trop­i­cal and sweet! The Is­land of the Gods! “Bali?” she says. “Bali! Are you se­ri­ous? I bet there is surf­ing in all those places.” I wince. She’s right. She laughs, in a clipped, sort of vin­di­cated way. But at least there’s a twin­kle in her eye.

True self­less­ness is hard. When I brought this up with Marsh, she had a quick re­ply: “We tend to use our own ex­pe­ri­ences of the world to in­fer other peo­ple’s. It’s called ‘ego­cen­tric bias.’ So we sus­pect that for peo­ple who don’t be­lieve in the pos­si­bil­ity of truly al­tru­is­tic mo­ti­va­tions, this be­lief is prob­a­bly re­lated to their own dis­po­si­tions.” Ouch.

Hop­ing to con­firm my dis­po­si­tions one fi­nal time, I call surfer Taj Bur­row, the Pipe­line Mas­ter, for­mer num­ber two on the world pro­fes­sional surf­ing tour. He re­tired in 2 016 to spend more time with his young daugh­ter. Is surf­ing, I ask him, a self­ish sport? He laughs, a lit­tle low-key chor­tle. “Ha! I’ll ad­mit it: Surf­ing is in­cred­i­bly self­ish,” he says. “When the waves are good, you drop ev­ery­thing. It’s hard to ad­just to not be­ing self­ish, too. That’s why I quit the tour when I had a fam­ily.”

Yes, I say, but would you go on va­ca­tion to a place with­out waves?

“Are you kid­ding?” he asks. “For sure!” A no-surf va­ca­tion it is, then.

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