Do it for the Dopamine

If you want a hit, helping others is way better than shopping.

I love to help people. I just find that I feel better when I do that. It doesn’t really matter what circumstances I’m in. I always come out feeling better when I help other people.

I don’t believe in pure altruism. I know that altruism exists in many forms, but there is always a return on the investment. In some cases, that return is immediate gratification. In other cases, it’s genetics. The DNA in our bodies commands us to do the things we need to do to reproduce. That DNA has a billion years of wisdom built into the goal of survival, and it provides us with an instinct for self-preservation. And one of the things that DNA has learned, is that helping others is a survival skill.

I work a job in customer service. I work with customers who need help with very large data storage systems. These customers don’t have very much time to beat their heads on Google looking for a solution to their problems with the software I support. So they pay for a support contract and that means I’m in the business of helping customers in exchange for money.

I’ve been doing this particular job for a few years now and I’m honing my skills. I know how to talk a customer down from the stratosphere when they’re upset. I know how to bring in help when I’m hip-deep in problems to solve. And I know how I feel when I help that customer to solve their problem. That gratification I feel when I help someone, even at work, while I’m working for a living, comes courtesy of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. To put it simply, I help people for the dopamine.

When my kids are having a meltdown because they’re tired, frustrated or disappointed that they didn’t get what they want, I help them out. I talk with them until they’re done being tired. I explain to them that being angry is very taxing on the body, and that means every minute they spend being angry is another minute earlier that they will fall asleep. I let them know that I’m there to help them walk through their meltdown. That I’m here for a hug, but I don’t tell them that I’m a big fan of oxytocin. I just let them know that they can always ask for a hug, no matter what.

And every time I slow walk my kids through a meltdown, I get that hit of dopamine. If we hug, both of us get a nice big shot of oxytocin.

There is no such thing as winning an argument with my wife. God knows I’ve tried. But I’ve never felt satisfied with winning an argument with my wife. There is a power differential between my wife and we both know that I have a lot more power than she does. So I don’t use that power. Abuse of power destroys trust, any chance for intimacy and reduces any opportunities for cooperation to near zero.

So even when my wife is upset, I try to slow walk her upsets, too. I let her know that I’m here for her. That I’m available to talk to. That she can talk to me about anything, anytime. I’m just that way. I’m that way because I want to be treated that way. I’m that way because I love my wife, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

Now I know I could have gone the other way with my kids as many parents do. I could have tried to overwhelm my kids with force or threats of force to get them to calm down, but I don’t. In customer service, when a customer yells at me, I could shoot back, but I don’t. I know I could “settle” my arguments with my wife with power, but I don’t. Because in all cases, I lose if I do that. I could lose a job, I could lose the trust of my kids, or I could lose the trust of my wife. Most importantly, I lose another chance for a hit of dopamine.

In every case where I’ve chosen helping or cooperation over retaliation, I’ve noticed a net benefit. And those benefits are cumulative and progressive over time. They lead to a state of happiness and contentment that is hard to achieve any other way.

How I feel when I interact with others has taught me to err on the side of peace. I have been practicing this for many years now, and every day, I can wake up and notice something to be grateful for. I can look around me and point to a reason to be happy. I don’t worry about what other people think or what they are going to do. I have no personal adversaries. And the days between upsets have been growing with time and experience.

I know of the suffering that I read about in the news on the internet. I see stories of people doing really awful things to other people. I’m not one of those people because every single day, I make a decision to help instead of hinder. I make a decision to look for opportunities for that hit of dopamine, oxytocin or serotonin. I make those decisions because I know the alternative can be pretty grim.

I do what I do not because this is how the world is. I do what I do because this is how I want the world to be.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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