- We often try to help people in a way that is rewarding for us — this doesn’t lead to the best outcomes.
- If we pursue doing good and feeling good separately, we will do both of them better.
It is better to do good than to feel good doing it
We all think we know this and yet we all routinely fail to live by it.
Why? Most of the time, we aim at doing good and feeling good doing it as if they were the same goal.
This leads us down the wrong path when we are considering what career to pursue. If we go in with an unshakeable idea of how we want to do good in our careers (especially if we are thinking of direct work like teaching, or medical aid), then we are limiting ourselves. Many of the careers that do the most good could be in research, advocacy, or policy. These three options don’t let you do much of the direct help which can often feel the most good, but they lead to far more people getting help.
When we do something charitable, like donate or volunteer our time, few of us are in the habit of seeking out the best opportunity to do good with that money or effort. Instead, we lean towards the options that feel good — i.e. where we can get the feeling of directly helping someone (like volunteering at a soup kitchen, or donating to a local charity). This leads to you causing less good things to happen with your time than you could have otherwise. If you spent your Saturday morning working a shift at a cafe instead of a soup kitchen and then donated the money to an effective charity, you could probably do much more good.
Know when you’re winning — pursue goals separately
If we could separate the two goals, we could achieve both of them in much better ways (and we probably wouldn’t have to get the Saturday job at the cafe).
If you were aiming to find the best way of getting the feeling that you are helping, you might choose something like working at a soup kitchen, or volunteering to read to children at a local school. This could be really valuable to you, leaving you feeling satisfied and more integrated in your local community. It could also suck, and if you knew that you were working towards helping people in a way that felt good, you could switch to helping in another way without guilt.
On the other hand, with the effort and money that you want to spend on doing good, you can research the ways to do the most good that you can.
This has been the goal of the Effective Altruism movement for the last decade, and they have found that focusing exclusively on this goal has led to some pretty major wins.
As we argue in this article, they’ve found charities that do ten or a hundred times better than others, and careers that do the same.
Perhaps there are things you could do today to make yourself feel better, and make sure that your time, money or effort does more good.
What do I do right now which does good?
How could I do this better?
What do I do right now that makes me feel good about doing good?
How could I do this better?
How social pressure distorts your thinking
Many people have unconscious goals that they don't really want to acknowledge, and prestige seems to be a particularly common one.