Think most people are selfish

Why egoists live more miserably and die sooner

What is the benefit of being helpful and generous? Nothing at all, quite a few contemporaries answer behind closed doors. In her opinion, it is only thanks to training if people think of others at least occasionally. No doubt we have heard thousands of admonitions of decency in our lives - from instructions from parents to share the precious candy with siblings to the teachings of religion. But the fruit of this unselfish education is poisoned: We have long doubted ourselves that we take care of others of our own free will.

In doing so, we no longer notice many everyday experiences that point in a completely different direction. When we can show a stranger the way in our city, bring joy to a child or donate money to people in need, we feel good. And the elation that often overtakes us after a selfless act is not an illusion. As new results from brain research show, centers for pleasure become active in most people when they voluntarily give something to others. These are the same circuits that give us pleasant feelings when enjoying a bar of chocolate, a beloved piece of music or even during sex. Sweet egoism, bitter morality? Indeed, joy shared seems to be joy doubled.

And the happiness of being there for others is permanent. Women and men who stand up for their fellow human beings are measurably more satisfied than others who only pursue their own interests. Medical research revealed even more astonishing facts. Not only do selfless people seldom suffer from depression, their health is generally better. They even live longer. Intense social relationships cut the risk of death in half at any age. The reason is by no means that helpful people get more help and more affection from others. Whoever benefits from our work - family members, friends, needy people in the neighborhood or even strangers - is also irrelevant for the life-prolonging effect. The only thing that matters is how much we give. These results from what has now become a classic long-term study in California seemed so incredible to the scientists that similar data were collected from over 1,000 other senior citizens in America and Spain. The conclusion was the same everywhere: Those who are good to others feel better themselves.

So it is more than a coincidence that people like Albert Schweitzer, Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela enjoyed their 85th birthday in good health despite their extremely hard life, that Mahatma Gandhi went on hunger strike for peace immediately before his murder at the age of 78 could get through his country?

The fact that commitment to others increases one's own physical and mental well-being is paradoxical at first glance. Those who give away some of their resources to others seem to be at a disadvantage compared to more cunning contemporaries who only use their energy, time and money for their own goals. It is therefore not obvious why we enjoy helping and giving: Evolution has invented positive emotions as a signal for situations that are advantageous for us.

The apparent contradiction only overcame a new view of the origins of man, which is gradually gaining ground. According to this, our distant ancestors in Africa's savannah had no other option but to look after others. Our ancestors had to become the friendliest of all monkeys before they had a chance to be the brightest monkeys. Because the bigger and more adaptive their brains became, the longer their childhood lasted, and the less they could feed their offspring on their own for more than a decade. “It takes a village to raise a child,” goes a well-known African proverb. This wisdom was already valid in a very literal sense for the first representatives of our species: people can only reproduce in a community.

So the human brain was programmed to be helpful and generous. Groups in which early humans cared for one another flourished; others went under. The ability to empathize with others and to think into them developed. Responsible is an empathic brain system that functions very differently than the usual strategic thinking. When we experience other people in joy or pain, we reflect their feelings in our own heads. As if the boundary between "you" and "me" was dissolved, both brains then vibrate in unison. Similar mechanisms ensure trust and mutual understanding. Contrary to what philosophers long suspected, we do not have to be trained to compassion against an egoistic core of our personality: We are born with the dispositions for it, and they show up in early childhood. And whether in the rainforest of Papua New Guinea or in the skyscrapers of Manhattan - people from all cultures care for the well-being of others in a very similar way. Apparently we have genes for altruism

The fact that the world is teeming with egoists does not speak against it. Because people are not without question just prepared to be selfless. It is possible that our abilities to look for one's own advantage first are even stronger. What is crucial, however, is that a natural counterweight, whose effect we cannot simply switch off, balances our egoism. How altruistic a person behaves in certain situations is also a matter of disposition; Studies on twins show that one person is genetically more and the other less inclined to be unselfish.

But the range within which everyone can use their talents is enormous. Man is a born runner, which is why any healthy person can manage a marathon with appropriate training. Others even cover short distances in the car, so that their leg muscles atrophy. Likewise, we can neglect - or cultivate - our dispositions for altruism.

However, with good feelings, nature has invented a sophisticated means to seduce us into what it wants from us. Sex is exciting and enjoyable because we are supposed to reproduce. More effective than many would like, the feelings of pleasure while eating are also so that we create fat pads for difficult times. In a very similar way, nature rewards us for helpfulness and fairness.

When we take care of the well-being of others, hormones like opioids and oxytocin are released in the head; both play an important role in sex too. Opioids are a type of natural intoxicant. They differ from the active ingredients of the drugs opium and heroin only in that they are produced in the brain itself. You make us euphoric.

Mammalian reproduction would be inconceivable without oxytocin. It flows freely during orgasm, ensures the bond with a partner in monogamous creatures, controls female milk production after birth and the comforting relaxation during breastfeeding, and in general makes your own baby appear lovable. In the course of the evolution, the effects of oxytocin carried over to other human relationships. In both men and women, it increases the willingness to trust, to enter into relationships with others, to take care of them. Oxytocin also lifts the mood, and above all it releases anxiety.

The hormonal basis of selflessness offers an explanation why altruists are usually not only happier but also healthier people: Both the opioids and oxytocin counteract the stress reaction. Both dampen the release of the stress hormone cortisol and thus not only prevent cardiovascular diseases, but also infections. Because chronic stress damages the blood vessels and hinders the immune system.

These connections may even solve the riddle of why women in all cultures live longer than men, even though pregnancy and childbirth put an enormous strain on their bodies. That the positive effects of devotion to children can more than outweigh the burdens is shown by our biologically closest relatives. In the case of most species of apes, the fathers do not care about their offspring - and are outlived by the females. But there are exceptions: With the South American jumper monkeys, for example, the male takes on all child care, while the mother only comes to suckle. And in these animals, the male actually lives longer. Could the baby months of a human father also pay off in more years of life?

Caring for the offspring is only one of the innumerable ways to be altruistic, and there is no question that commitment to others has an effect on the giver in many ways. Those who know that they are needed are usually more careful with themselves for this reason alone.

Such insights are important not only for each individual, but also for society as a whole. In Germany, as in most other countries, severe depression is spreading at a terrifying pace. In just a decade, the risk of young people becoming pathologically moody has more than tripled. And in another decade, depression will be the most devastating disease in women, according to the World Health Organization. In men, only cardiovascular diseases - mostly stress-related - will cause even more damage. What is certain is that working for others can prevent these common ailments.

The principle of “everyone for himself”, which our society has made its guiding principle over the past decades, has proven to be extremely risky. It is high time to understand that we need humanity in dealing with others because it increases our own well-being. The age-old question of whether you should take care of others or your own happiness has found its answer: about both - because one cannot exist without the other.

Published in: Focus 37/2010