The Truth About Self-Interest
The celebrated American novelist Veronica Roth, whose Divergent trilogy was successfully adapted into a series of blockbuster sci-fi movies, deliberately infused her best-known work with important moral lessons.
In particular, the protagonist and narrator of Divergent, sixteen-year-old Beatrice “Tris” Prior, begins her roller-coaster journey in the belief that selflessness is a debilitating weakness which one needs to overcome. But early on she is disabused of this notion; deuteragonist Tobias Eaton, better known as “Four”, informs Tris that it is only “when you’re acting selflessly that you are at your bravest.”
It is a powerful lesson, and it foretells the dramatic climax of the trilogy, when Tris gives up her own life to save her brother.
One of the great challenges of the human condition is the ever-present tension between self-interest and selflessness. Curiously, countless studies have shown that focusing on self-interest to the exclusion of the needs of others does not guarantee happiness.
No matter how much one has managed to accumulate in terms of material possessions, or to what extent one has managed to isolate oneself from the outside world — happiness and contentment may well continue to be elusive. In fact, a 2015 study carried out by two economics professors at Emory University empirically demonstrated that great wealth often decreases one’s happiness.
Every human being on the planet is driven by selfish needs and desires, and yet the evidence is that being successful does not guarantee the happiness we all constantly seek. If so, how is it possible to find happiness? The answer appears to be — both for those who have accumulated wealth, as well as for those without it — to engage in acts of compassion.
At the most basic level, this is because doing whatever you can for others stimulates the brain’s pleasure pathways and makes you feel good. It might sound crazy, but brain-imaging research has revealed that performing a kind act — for example, donating money to charity or putting yourself out for others — actually activates the brain’s pleasure centers in the same way as eating a sweet dessert or buying new clothes.
But the difference is, when we divert our focus away from self-interest, and particularly if we focus on the needs of others, we will be less preoccupied with our own anxieties. Specifically, the positive feeling that accompanies a compassionate act will enable you to face the issues which are a downer in your life with fresh energy and a constructive attitude.
Concerning yourself for others can also have a positive impact on your physical health. In 2007, the Washington DC based Corporation for National and Community Service reported that those who volunteer for 100 hours each year or more are 33% less likely “to report bad health” in comparison to those who never volunteer — and the evidence shows that these same people will have reduced their risk of hypertension, and even premature death.
Other studies have shown that those who engage in regular acts of charity and compassion have a better chance of avoiding dementia in old age.
The Torah records countless acts of charity and compassion, and it is clear that altruism is a value embedded at the heart of Judaism. But it is not until Parshat Terumah that this vital characteristic of our faith finds its first mandated act, when God requests that the recently redeemed nation parts with their newly acquired material possessions in order to build a sanctuary in His honor.
Among the items listed for contribution were the twelve jewels designated to decorate the High Priest’s breastplate. Central to the interpretation of Torah is the idea that no descriptive words are ever used by chance — which means that the fact the breastplate gems are referred to as avnei millu’im (“filling stones”) is no accident.
Rashi explains that each gem was intended to fill a cavity in the solid gold plate, but Ramban is puzzled by this explanation: why would the Torah define an object by what was going to be done with it once it was received for use?
More surprisingly, the stones seem to be defined by a negative — they would fill an empty space — rather than a positive, namely their sparkling beauty and arresting splendor. And, as we know, these stones were intended to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, all of whom had unique qualities; surely they should all have been defined by their unique qualities rather than by the fact that they would be used to fill a hole?
Rabbi Yochanan Zweig suggests a satisfying explanation for this anomaly, which dovetails beautifully with the idea that focusing on doing good for others is far more beneficial than being totally absorbed by self-interest. People often find themselves torn between remaining in a place which requires their talents or relocating to another location which may be more conducive to perceived personal growth. By referring to the breastplate gems as avnei millu’im, the Torah offers a solution to this dilemma, prescribing that it is preferable to remain in a place where one is needed — filling a hole — rather than relocating to somewhere better suited to one’s own personal development.
The simple explanation is that a community needs each and every individual to contribute their unique qualities to the larger group, and if you choose the community’s needs over your own, you are filling a gap that would be an ugly void if you weren’t there.
But truthfully, the Torah is offering an even greater insight, one that is reflected in the sociological studies I’ve already mentioned. In the final analysis, the choice to remain where you are most needed and where you are engaged in helping others is, as it turns out, what is most beneficial for you. Your personal growth is best served by serving others, not by focusing exclusively on yourself.
Or, to put it slightly differently: it is not a jewel’s beauty that makes it beautiful, but the fact that it fills a hole and thus enhances everything around it.