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Contribution makes us happy – but it’s not a moral duty.

Contribution is an important part of a fulfilled life. With the limited abilities most of us have, however, we are unlikely to make a difference and are free from a moral obligation to contribute. In fact, most efforts to contribute are ill-natured attempts to maintain an exaggerated ego, only trying to force others into believing what we believe and failing to make any positive impact. Let’s take a look at why it is nonetheless important to contribute and how we can do it maturely.

Often, the desire to help others is narcissism in disguise

A few years ago, my football coach asked our team to write down the top goals we wanted to achieve that year. As my first goal, I wrote that I want to be a good person and help everyone I can. At the time, I considered my motives to be noble and genuine, but now I know that they were far from it. 99 percent of the time, great talk about doing good for others is the last resort of a hurt ego and therefore unable to create positive results.

Often, our desire to help others is our last attempt to justify an overblown ego combined with a weak sense of self. This problem starts when we are growing up. The lives of an adult and a young child are fundamentally different. When we are young children, we feel omnipotent. Our parents carry to our every need, everybody loves us, and we are the center of attention. After we leave home, however, our lives have changed. As adults, nothing is provided for us, many of our dreams fade away, and nobody carries to our every need. The world has become a complex, often difficult, and sometimes harsh place that seems to be indifferent to our desires.

As this transformation gradually changes our lives, we have to grow up. We have to realize that we are just as insignificant as everybody else, and that nothing will be given to us. During this long and difficult process, our mind naturally tries to find ways to keep its fantasy of omnipotence alive, thereby constantly creating new refugees for our overblown egos.

As kids, when we start to realize that we will not be the center of attention in our family forever, we dream about regaining our omnipotent status by becoming super bowl winning quarterbacks, astronauts, and rock stars. As we get older and these dreams seem more and more improbable, we fantasize about becoming rich, having a beautiful partner, and driving expensive cars.

In our early 20s, the realization that even these dreams might be out of reach starts to set in. In this situation, our mind often grasps for the last straw to keep its fantasies of grandeur alive: We convince ourselves that we sacrifice for the greater good. We want to believe that, while we might never have the biggest house or the most beautiful partners, we willingly surrendered these dreams to help others.

This believe, although well-disguised as an attempt to contribute to the greater good, is narcissistic. It is a weak sense of self’s last attempt to maintain an oversized ego, even if all our life-circumstances contradict this self-assessment. Believing that we are powerful and smart enough to end other peoples’ suffering helps us to keep believing in our omnipotence – we can still feel as if the world revolves around us.

While it is perfectly normal to go through such a phase at some point, it is a phase that we have to overcome. Bill Gates might be able to do good for others, but most of us lack the resources to save anyone, and in the great picture of things, the world is too complex and unpredictable to know whether what we do will have any positive effects. Instead, when we fail to overcome our juvenile fantasies of omnipotence, we often misunderstand our desire to contribute as reason enough to force everybody to believe in what we believe, thereby only making everybody’s life more difficult and failing to create any positive change.

To justify our obnoxious behavior, we often say that we consider it as our moral duty to contribute. That is an excuse and it is nonsense. There is no moral duty to contribute. Burdened with limited resources and almost certain failure to make a difference, nobody is morally obliged to contribute. Nobody has the right to force another human being to waste their life in an effort that is destined to fail. Instinctively, we all know that, which is why the argument that contribution is a moral duty has mostly produced lip service in the past.

Luckily, there is a better way to look at contribution. When we understand that our desire to contribute is not fueled by a superior moral principle but by the simple need to feel good about ourselves, we change the entire nature of how we understand contribution in two ways:

  1. If what we do serves ourselves first, we have no right to force our believes on others. Our attempts to contribute have to respect certain limits. While we can try to influence things and we can direct our resources to causes we care about, we can’t hurt anybody else, their rights, or their property in our attempts to contribute.
  2. If contribution is just another thing we do to feel good about ourselves, we have no right to feel superior to people who contribute to other things or do not contribute at all – we all just try our best to be happy. With this change, we avoid the in-group-out-group bias that causes us to treat the out group more negatively once we divide the world into groups. When we contribute in immature ways, we fail to make a positive difference but create a bias against the out group, thereby creating a net-loss in positive behavior. We would be better off not trying to contribute at all.

With these change in how we understand contribution we prevent ill-natured attempts to maintain an exaggerated ego that are merely masked as a desire to contribute. For example, when someone believes in creationism, they are not allowed to request a law that forces science classes to teach something that scientists universally consider nonsense. They can, however, give speeches and hand out flyers. The belief that what we do contributes to some greater good does not justify us to infringe on other people’s property, and in a philosophical sense, our ideas, believes, and rights are our property.

We can create more positive change and better lives for ourselves by outgrowing our juvenile fantasies and understanding the real reasons for why contribution is so essential. That does not require us to surrender our dreams and settle for lives bereft of passion, it just requires us to find better ways to live our dreams – and contribution is an essential part of this maturing process.

Why it is nonetheless important to contribute

Over the last centuries, our fundamental changes in how we work have created emotional problems. A few hundred years ago, most people worked in jobs that enabled them to clearly see the results of their work. The blacksmith saw horses with his horseshoes carry people around, the carpenter saw his chairs and tables help people build a home for themselves. Being able to see how others profit from the products they made gave these workers a sense of contribution that was a key part of their lives. Knowing that people relied on them and that they mattered in this world helped them feel better.

In our modern work environment, most of us have become a tiny cog in a giant machine, one of thousands of people that create a product. While this type of industry has solved many of our problems and has helped create a world our ancestors would have never dared to dream about, it has also taken the spiritual aspect out of our work. Aside from few exceptions such as teachers and doctors, we never know whether what we do makes a difference in the world. When we go through tough times, work can easily become another burden that drags us down instead of lifting us up.

This development is a problem. When we take the spiritual aspect out of work, work becomes nothing more than a tool to make money. While this function is important enough to keep us going to work, it is not enough to make us like work or to give our lives meaning. The lack of spirituality leaves a deep void inside us and reduces the quality of our lives significantly.

To live happy, fulfilled lives, we have to recreate the spiritual aspect of work. We have to use work as a tool that helps us to contribute and that provides us with fulfilment. The key to making this change is to identify the values that drew us to the dreams we had to abandon while growing up and contribute to these values in ways that suit our strengths and talents better.

There are three ways in which we can use work to contribute to values we are passionate about:

  1. We can contribute directly with our work. If we wanted to become astronauts when we were young because we wanted to advance science, working in a science-related field can help us to serve the same values, thereby providing us with the same emotional rewards.

  2. We can use our work to support our family. Since most of us are passionate about family life in some way, working for our family adds a sense of purpose to our work.

  3. We can use our work to pay the bills and enable us to take on a hobby that allows us to contribute. To stay with the example of space flight, we could join a club that builds model rockets, thereby helping to further spread the values we love.

We can create the happiest lives by combining these three ways. When we work in a job that is related to the values we cherish, when we use the money we make to support the family we love, and when we have hobbies that allow us to work with other values that are important to us, we can regain the sense of purpose and fulfilment that we have lost because we no longer directly interact with the people that profit from our work.

The important thing to take away from this post is that when we choose a career, a hobby, or a partner, we can make better decisions by choosing things that are related to the values we are passionate about.

  • Instead of choosing a career that solely focuses on our strengths or the potential pay check, we are better off choosing a career that uses our strengths to contribute to the values we are passionate about.

  • Instead of following trends when choosing a hobby, we can make better decisions by choosing hobbies that are related to values we cherish.

  • Instead of choosing a partner based on looks or wealth, we can create more stable relationships by choosing someone who shares our values and passions.

Conclusion

  1. The need for contribution is the result of our changing work environment.
  2. There is no moral duty to contribute. We contribute to feel better about ourselves.
  3. The best way to contribute is to use our strengths to contribute to the values we are passionate about.
  4. Our desire to contribute does not allow us to hurt other people or their property.

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Published in Psychology

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