If you’re a fan at all of the show Friends, you might remember an episode called “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” where Joey claims that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed. He argues that if you do something for another person that makes you feel good, then it’s no longer selfless. Phoebe then spends the episode searching for the elusive “unselfish good deed.” In other words, the idea of “if you’re happy, I’m happy” doesn’t count as altruism by Joey’s definition. In reality, there is actually great benefit in the world of positive psychology to believe in the overall good for everyone when someone does something for someone else. Let’s dive in.
In the world of positive psychology, altruism can be defined as a “behavior motivated by the goal of increasing someone else’s welfare” whereas egoism is “driven by our self-interest” (Batson, Ahmad & Lishner, 2020). In this case, the motivation for helping another person matters.
So why does altruistic behavior happen at all? Firstly, it’s a form of prosocial behavior, which is any behavior that benefits someone else regardless of motive. Prosocial behavior improves our relationships, actually has mood-boosting effects by triggering the reward center of the brain, and mediates the impact of stress. It can improve one’s self image, increase empathy, and help socialize children appropriately at young ages. Regardless, there are mutual benefits to being altruistic, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t seem to matter if you gain something by helping to increase someone else’s welfare. In other words, there’s generally no downside to the idea that “if you’re happy, I’m happy.” So what do we think so far, is there such a thing as an unselfish good deed?
One consideration about the “if you’re happy then I’m happy” attitude, because the reality is, there is a potential downside if you’re not aware. This is different than altruism:
1. It could lead to codependency: codependency is an emotional dependence on a partner. We see it happen MOST in partners that have illnesses or addictions. Codependency is a boundary issue, and when you have a codependent relationship, it means you are unable to separate your emotions from the other person. You feel in tandem, you react in tandem. When the ship goes down, you go down with it. This is a sign of both an unhealthy relationship and an unhealthy self-image that can lead to unhealthy coping strategies under stress and unrealistic expectations for a person’s role in a relationship.
2. It leads to an unhealthy self-image and lack of self-awareness: when your feelings are based on someone else’s, you can imagine how difficult it might be, then, to think independently, creatively, or effectively and make decisions. It actually dampens your ability to have empathy because it puts stress on your whole emotional and cognitive system. And if you don’t know what your feelings actually are, then you cannot appropriately express them which can lead to depression, anxiety, and stress.
3. Here’s another long list of issues with codependency
We don’t have to look far in scripture to find that not only is altruism important, but a commandment that helps to define Biblical love, which is, in fact, selfless:
Galatians 5:14 – For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Philippians 2:3-4 – Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
1 Corinthians 9:19 – For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
Proverbs 3:27 – Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.
At the end of the day, serving others with pure hearts is a good thing. It provides us with communal
love, we fulfill the commandments of God, and we reap our own mental health benefits. When health is
at the forefront of our minds (including mental, spiritual, and physical), we can know that our
motivation is pure and can lead your service to others well. We don’t have to take sides with Joey or
Phoebe – just simplify it and evaluate your own health and mindset for life.
-Mary – learn more about Mary’s speaking engagements here!