Warm Glow

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Warm Glow

Poor Larry David. Even a simple act of charity is fraught for the semi-fictionalized star of the HBO sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry is alight with pride when he arrives at the opening of a new museum wing and sees his name immortalized on the wall as a donor. “Pret-ty good,” he preens to his wife, Cheryl, ready to soak up the admiration of the VIP guests. But then he notices the donor inscribed on the other new wing. Anonymous. His mood darkens: “Now it looks like I just did mine for the credit.” Sure enough, when Cheryl whispers that Larry’s friend Ted Danson is the mystery donor, Larry is outraged at Ted’s chutzpah. “Nobody told me that I could be anonymous—and tell people!” he fumes. “I would have taken that option!”

We’re quick to be suspicious about other people’s motives for helping—and sometimes even our own. To Larry David, a gift to charity is motivated by thoughts of one-upmanship and desire for prestige. Others might assume we want something in return (see: oime), or that we just enjoy polishing that little halo (see: SMUGNESS).

But truth is, most of us walk off feeling a little bouncier after helping carry a stranger’s stroller up the stairs, or bringing in a neighbor’s shopping. Random acts of kindness give a HUMBLE feeling of solidarity of the “we’re all in this together” variety, even a swell of PRIDE for having been capable enough to do anything useful at all. Yet, though we say “it’s my pleasure” after someone thanks us, the English language has not yet dignified this pleasure with a name. Some have suggested “Altru-hedonism.” Slightly less ugly is the phrase suggested by the Victorian philosopher Herbert Spencer (not known for being pithy): “altruistic pleasure.” With this sort of competition, it might be that “a warm glow,” even if it does remind us of halos and the smiles of self-SATISFACTION, is still the best we have.

Perhaps this blind spot in the English language can be traced to a distaste for the concept that kindness should be enjoyable at all. The idea that humans are naturally selfish is well established in Western culture. In his sermons, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer John Calvin imagined humans to be devious and depraved, and that genuinely acting in another’s best interests is hard for us to do. He taught the devout to strive to overcome their worse natures and carry out their “Christian duty.” Generosity and kindness weren’t instinctual, but required a concerted effort. Kindness should cost us; perhaps even hurt.

Today’s neuroscientists argue differently. Over the past ten years, research into altruism has suggested that one of the key pleasure pathways of the brain, the mesolimbic system that carries dopamine to the areas associated with reward, is engaged when we donate to charity in the same way as it is when we receive money ourselves. The fMRI images that accompany these studies depict our brains glowing, quite literally, with the pleasure of giving. There are, of course, many other self-interested reasons to be altruistic: helping others binds our societies together and creates reciprocal networks. But the insight that the pleasure we feel is a biological inevitability, “nature’s reward” for behavior that will help our species survive, seems oddly a relief to hear. Perhaps in time this knowledge will shift our way of thinking, until we forget that kindness was ever supposed to be a duty, and relish it only as a pleasure. And perhaps, then, more words for the “warm glow” we feel will not be far behind.

For other reasons we might be reluctant to help, see: COMPASSION; PITY.