At Psychedelic Science 2017 I briefly interacted with one of the most warm and welcoming women in the world. She was volunteering at the tea house, serving tea at low tables with cushions spread around on the floor.
Whenever someone sat down, this woman was ready with tea and a gracious smile. When she smiled at you it was like being washed over with calm and serenity. In contrast to the hectic energy of the rest of the conference, this couldn’t have been needed more.
On the last day I was eating a sandwich in the marketplace and happened to see this woman walking by, having finished work at the tea house for the day. I went over to her, trying to swallow my sandwich before I reached her, and said, “Excuse me…” and told her how much I appreciated her demeanour at the tea house. She smiled a big smile (of course), thanked me and gave me a hug.
This whole interaction lasted less than a minute, but clearly made her day better. It only took two sentences: an effort on my part so negligible that it was functionally nonexistent. Yet it was enough to add some small and undeniably real amount of good to the world.
We’re used to imagining things operating on a tit-for-tat basis, that there is never a give without an equivalent take. That there is no action without an equal and opposite reaction and no benefit without its corresponding cost.
While this may be true in physics, I don’t think it’s quite the same for human happiness and wellbeing. I can see at least two reasons for this.
First, circumstantial randomness has created enormous variation among human beings. What is valuable to some of us may be worth very little to others. What is valuable to all of us is randomly distributed according to genes, culture, location of birth and so on. No matter what games we decide to play in life, we’re all born onto an uneven playing field in one way or another.
Second, technology allows us to connect with almost anyone in the world, if not directly then indirectly. These two things together mean we have abundant opportunities to make the world better in small or large ways that are functionally costless to us.
My first example is one that is available to all of us: simply telling people when you appreciate them. The only “cost” is a few sentences and you are virtually guaranteed some benefit, with potential benefits that are actually quite high. Being on the receiving end of this can be profoundly meaningful to people because it is surprisingly rare.
Another example on a different scale: anyone can save a human life for around $3,500. $3,500 is not a negligible cost for most of us, but it is for some. It likely is for some of you reading right now.
Imagine your child is sick with a terrible disease and you are certain they will die. Imagine your gratitude and relief when you find that they will fully recover and live. If you are in a position to do so, you can give someone that experience at a negligible cost to yourself. You’re also giving that child the gift of their life.
We’re biased to underestimate the positive effects of such an act because we’re not there to witness them in person. But they are there.
In any case and regardless of financial means, we all have opportunities to do good at functionally no cost. Assuming you want to maximize the amount of good you do over a lifetime, it makes sense to start looking for these opportunities.
Random circumstance has provided you with time, abilities, skills, money, reach, or other resources that you can leverage to do costless good. A negligible cost to you can make an enormous difference for someone else. Or it may only make a small difference – no matter, this is a trade worth making every single time.
I don’t think it’s quite the same as “being a good person” either. That, in my mind at least, implies some sort of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. There is no sacrifice here. That’s the whole point: because we are on an uneven playing field, sometimes you really can get something for nothing.
One last, minor example. I was walking along the street the other day and saw an old Asian lady shuffling down a flight of stairs pulling a large, heavy bag behind her. She was barely mobile enough to get down the stairs on her own, let alone while dragging a load as big and heavy as her.
I went over and carried it for her to the final destination, which ended up being just a few houses down that same street. It was slow going at her walking pace yet she still remarked to each person we passed what a “good boy” I was (ha).
It is stereotypically moral to help an old lady, but the point here is that it was functionally costless to me. I wasn’t in a rush at that particular moment and I had five free minutes. I happened to be a young man for whom the bag wasn’t very heavy. Had the circumstances been different, I may have acted differently.
I believe these opportunities can be found everywhere, if only we would look for them. They are worth looking for because they are always worthwhile, according to pretty much any ethical calculus you can come up with. It’s as simple a shift as walking around with the concept in your head: Where can I do good at no cost to me?
It doesn’t matter how small or seemingly meaningless the opportunity is, again provided you want to maximize the amount of good you do over a lifetime. When you can make the world better at functionally no cost to yourself, it always makes sense to do so.
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