The value of doing good

May 21, 2006|By DANIEL L. BUCCINO

"This city needs a hug."

"Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty."

"Dear World: Sorry. We tried our best. Half of America."

The Dalai Lama has said, "My religion is kindness," and I'm all for hugging and apologies. But recent encounters with these prevalent bumper stickers have left me puzzled.

Indeed, civility requires us to live one step beyond the Golden Rule - to think first of others, rather than ourselves - if city life is to be sustained. But these sticker sentiments strike me as ultimately passive and resigned.

The 18th-century Scottish utilitarian moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson noted: "The surest way to private happiness is to do publicly useful actions." Our democracy was built on generosity and civic engagement.

The emerging science of positive psychology has confirmed that altruism is a critical component of happiness and that charitable acts sustain pleasurable mood states longer than other satisfying acts, such as eating a good meal or watching a funny movie. We feel good after dinner, but the feeling doesn't last as long as the effect of doing something useful.

Positive psychology asks, "What do you want to live your life toward?" and "What's right with you?" rather than simply, "What's wrong with you?" Attention has turned to what constitutes a good life and happiness rather than focusing exclusively on what may be diseased, dysfunctional, deficient, disordered or diagnosable.

Recent findings have confirmed not only that altruism and charity are major components of happiness but also that happiness itself is best thought of not as pleasure, a state of mind or mood but rather as an engagement in life. Happiness reflects and creates an absorption in life, in one's best efforts in love, work and hobbies, even when one is ill.

Those popular bumper stickers tip their hats to charity and civic engagement but don't insist on the effort of any specific "publicly useful actions." True political action would need to be massive and sustained and would require more than just a shrug of apology.

At a recent bar mitzvah, reflection arose about giving with "intentionality and discernment," which considered that although everyone has a responsibility to contribute to meeting the needs of the community, one may wish to give more intelligently than in random acts of kindness.

Part of the power of civility is that it is both altruistic and expedient; it is good for us and it is good for business. Just as giving is good - good for us and good for others - giving wisely may be even better.

There are resources now that disclose the amount of overhead and expenses that charitable organizations require as they relate to the amount of direct aid and services provided. This accounting is intended to guide more-informed charitable and communitarian efforts and to minimize the random, senseless, wasteful or fraudulent.

As a social worker, I am vulnerable to the pleadings of every homeless person, but I am also interested in intelligent giving and in constructing efficient and effective responses to community needs. Sadly, I realize they cannot just be hugged or apologized away.

Nor can we turn away. We are called to act, to think first of others, in the spirit of generosity, for optimal mental health and for our civilization.

One of our best first acts may be to obey another bumper sticker: "Behave." One of the many derivations of Baltimore's "Believe" campaign, "Behave" is the perfect reminder of what we must do first, at least to not make things worse.

Though there are numerous well-meaning and well-established compassionate traditions, the convergence of civility and positive psychology calls us away from randomness and passivity and into focused acts of altruism, sensible acts of charity and direct, sustained civic engagement.

Daniel L. Buccino is a founder and director of the Baltimore Psychotherapy Institute and on the clinical faculties of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His e-mail dbuccino@jhmi.edu.

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