Men's Health (UK) - - Are You Really A Good Person? -

I call my lo­cal pri­mary school’s front of­fice and of­fer my time. Af­ter an all-im­por­tant back­ground check, I’m ready to serve. For those with time, priv­i­lege and a school nearby that is look­ing for vol­un­teers, I can’t rec­om­mend this op­tion enough. A week af­ter call­ing, I find my­self sit­ting with a class of charm­ing sixyear-olds as they do ba­sic read­ing ex­er­cises and make let­ters out of Play-doh. The fol­low­ing week, I’m in the play­ground, de­stroy­ing 12-year-olds at foot­ball.

I get to know the kids by name: who’s a sore loser, who’s a bully, who has a killer step-over (and whom I there­fore have to mus­cle off the ball and make it look like an ac­ci­dent). They all call me “Mr Smithurst”. I’m en­joy­ing this. It’s hard, how­ever, to shake the idea that my joy is some­how self­ish, that I’m not do­ing it for the au­then­ti­cally al­tru­is­tic rea­sons that seem to mo­ti­vate the most saintly vol­un­teers. Marsh, how­ever, says that our al­tru­is­tic re­ward sys­tem is a pos­i­tive thing. Chan­nelling the Bud­dhist monk and molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist Matthieu Ri­card, she has con­sol­ing words for my guilt: “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?”

Even Miss Ju­lia, the class teacher who has been watch­ing me dec­i­mate her chil­dren on the play­ground, seems to think that my pres­ence here is salu­tary. “Hav­ing an adult to play foot­ball with at lunchtime is really valu­able,” she says.

“Be­cause… they need a mid­field gen­eral?” I ask.

“No, not to teach them to play, but how to han­dle los­ing, or to see a foul as a mis­take, not a de­lib­er­ate and per­sonal at­tack,” she says. “Oth­er­wise, they get into fights 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 im­pact that the av­er­age per­son can have on so­cial norms. Ac­cord­ing to her, those who ex­ist within a cul­ture that ex­pects other peo­ple to be trust­ing and help­ful will them­selves be trust­ing and help­ful. Why? “Be­ing a hu­man is com­pli­cated,” says Marsh. “Since life is full of th­ese com­pli­cated de­ci­sions and choices, we take our cues from the peo­ple around us. Just by be­ing good, you can help to change the per­cep­tion of what the av­er­age per­son is like, and thereby al­ter other peo­ple’s be­hav­iour.”

Can I change the world by be­ing a good sport? Maybe not the world, I con­clude, but at least I can have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on how th­ese kids treat each other at break time. And I don’t need to write an over­sized, mil­lion-pound cheque to do this.

“We have an­other man who comes in and does a fit­ness boot camp,” Miss Ju­lia adds, con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. “The rougher kids swear at him. But he just swears back at them. He’s ex-mil­i­tary, and he’s a great swearer. He doesn’t take any shit from them.”

“Can I swear at the kids?” I ask Miss Ju­lia

“Ab­so­lutely not,” she says.

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