Why Help Is Beautiful

Why Help Is Beautiful

For a research project, a colleague and I have been collecting helping experiences, memorable ways that someone helped them. When asking them to recount their helping story, we included an extra question to make sure our survey was working properly. (This is a common step in survey-based research.) It was an open-ended question inviting feedback on how it went. To our surprise, we saw a sizable group of people leaving comments like these:

“I enjoyed reflecting on a beautiful time in my life and sharing it with you all.”
“I enjoyed this survey because I got to look back fondly on a good memory.”
“It was nice to remember this experience since it was so positive.”
“I liked this survey because it was nice to remember this past event. My grandmother was very supportive of me, and she's been gone 3 years now, so thanks for the memories!”

You probably have similar feelings when you remember a helping story of your own. We tend to recall these experiences with fondness and gratitude. The memory remains with us precisely because we treasure it.

Moral Beauty

But there’s something more at work. This memory is meaningful to you thanks to a phenomenon called Moral Beauty.

For many centuries, philosophers have talked about the connection between moral goodness and beauty. Aristotle argued that the purpose of virtue was ”for the sake of the beautiful.” As scholar and Aristotle translator Joe Sachs put it, “What the person of good character loves with right desire and thinks of as an end with right reason must first be perceived as beautiful.”

Immanuel Kant saw a connection between our ability to appreciate beautiful things and to admire moral actions. He called tenderheartedness “beautiful and lovable,” even if it might lead us at times into poor decisions. True virtue, though, is more than just beautiful; it is sublime. And our appreciation of it comes from a feeling all of us have, a "feeling of the beauty and the dignity of human nature.”

What they and others have recognized is that we all value the feeling we get when seeing goodness between people. Kindness, generosity, selflessness, and sacrifice are beautiful to us. Appreciating those acts of goodness feels like the moments of awe we feel at seeing a mountain vista or a work of art.

Elevation and Kama Muta

More recently, psychologists have studied this feeling we get from seeing moral beauty, a feeling they call elevation. Empirically, people don’t all have the same sensitivity to moral beauty, even though most everyone can feel it. Women experience it more than men, for example. And people who are more easily elevated are also more “grateful, caring, empathetic, agreeable, and forgiving.”

Elevation exists in every culture and political belief. In his global study of awe-inspiring experiences, the psychologist Dacher Keltner found that appreciation of moral beauty is the most common experience of beauty that people have. Over 95% of those experiences involved seeing someone act to the benefit of someone else.

When that feeling of elevation is especially powerful, it becomes something that scholars call Kama Muta, a Sanscrit-derived term that means “moved by love.” If you’ve seen an act of such generosity that made you feel warmth in your chest, a lump in your throat, tears in your eyes, and other buoyant feelings, then you’ve experienced Kama Muta. That moment probably also drew you closer to others so that you felt more connected, even to total strangers. Kama Muta, like elevation more broadly, is also a universal human experience.

Seeking Elevation

Elevation is such a sure thing, that acts of kindness define entire social media businesses. A day doesn’t go by on Instagram or TikTok without seeing a viral video of a man rescuing a scared and stranded dog or an adult daughter who traveled hundreds of miles for a surprise reunion with her mother. The most watched account on YouTube is run by Jimmy Donaldson, aka Mr. Beast. Starting out first as a Minecraft streamer, Mr. Beast became famous for filming huge acts of generosity, like the time he took over a used car dealership and gave a free car to every customer that walked in.

At BYU, the university where I teach, a Master’s student named Savannah Rebecca Bagley named this phenomenon when she wrote her thesis about the “Altruistic Influencer.” In it, she analyzes the work of Hank and John Green, a pair also known as the Vlogbrothers. The two have built a massive online community called Nerdfighteria that has collectively raised tens of millions of dollars for various charitable causes around the world.

You’ll also notice across all of this discussion of moral beauty that large and small acts of helping elevate us. We’re touched by a teenager thoughtful enough to help an elderly woman with her groceries. We’re moved by a teenager who risks his life to rescue a child from floodwaters. Both acts are beautiful to us, along with a wide range of other helping experiences.

Lastly, elevation does more than feel good. It inspires us. In a wide range of studies, elevation is typically followed by a desire to help other people and to be a better person. In other words, helping is contagious. Moral beauty doesn’t just give us moments of awe, it turns us into more generous people.

Please leave a comment or reply to this email if you have something to ask or share. And sending this to friends is the best way to help this newsletter grow. Thank you for reading!

Where to Find Your Calling

Where to Find Your Calling

Hidden lessons from a younger you

Most kids like to collect stuff, but they usually collect normal things like Pokémon cards or interesting rocks. When I was a kid, I collected completely useless facts. My family teased me for starting every few sentences with the phrase, “Did you know…” I still remember this one:

Did you know Americans eat an average of eight pounds of pickles per year?

(Now 35 years later, this is still true by the way.)

When we were predicting what jobs all of us would have as adults, everyone in my family predicted that I would be a college professor. And I considered it seriously for a semester of my freshman year, until one of my professors told me that it wasn’t worth it. :P I decided on law school and a legal career, instead.

After an unexpected set of career twists and turns, I’ve now been a professor for 18 years. I love my job, and feel so fortunate to do what I do.

You may be struggling to find your calling in life. It’s an exceedingly common experience. If this is you, or someone you know, I hope this idea is helpful.

Look back

In my very first episode of the How to Help podcast, I recruited the help of my fellow-professor and friend, Dr. Jeff Thompson. He’s a leading scholar in Calling and how people find purpose and satisfaction in their work.

Here’s one of the tips he offered in that interview: If you are trying to figure out your calling in life, look to your childhood. What were you naturally drawn to?

And don’t think just about topics like dinosaurs, ballet, math, or soccer. Think about the way you enjoyed spending your time, or the role you played in your group of friends, or what people trusted you to do for them. Most people have natural talents and interests that can be traced back to their childhood years. One of mine was a fascination with knowledge and an instinct to share it.

Your calling is calling

Despite early discouragement from a professor, I still found my way into teaching. Once given the opportunity to teach a class as an adjunct professor, I was almost shocked at how much I enjoyed it. That first class led to more opportunities and to the job I have now. It wasn't a path I either predicted or crafted, but it was one that was evident in a younger me.

If you’ve struggled to find your calling, I strongly recommend the interview with him. And take courage! Jeff is convinced from his research that all of us have gifts that we can offer the world. If you’re still not sure what yours might be, know that an expert in calling believes in you.

What are some of your childhood talents or gifts that you could put to work today?

Advice for Over-Helpers

Advice for Over-Helpers

If this article isn't for you, it's probably for someone you know. Let me describe that person:

You are—or you know—a person who:

  • Always goes the extra, exhausted mile. This is someone who is first to volunteer, and does it no matter how busy they already are. Behind the scenes, you see the sleep they skip or the money they spend for others, and they'd be mortified if you ever revealed it.
  • Deflects praise for their kindness. They instead feel like they should have done more, and often apologize for it.
  • In brief moments of honesty, utters the meekest of complaints at having too much to do for others, or at being taken for granted. But it's a thought they push away, because that sort of complaining isn't what a good person should do.
  • Is relentless in their desire to help, despite the very obvious and painful limits on their time, energy, and resources. They spend most days straining at these limits.

In short, this person is an over-helper. And I have some reasonable advice for them, advice to make them better helpers.

Ask for help more often

A first, common mistake I’ve noticed among over-helpers is that they are loath to ask for help themselves, even if it’s to recruit extra hands to assist someone else. Over-helpers are prone to feeling that if they themselves need help, then they’re falling short. Or that they’re burdening someone. Or that they’re obligated to return the favor. In any case, it feels more comfortable to go it alone, even if that’s ultimately overwhelming.

Over-helpers also hate to inconvenience others, so they’ll turn down assistance as a way to protect other people from themselves. This can deprive others of whole range of benefits that come from helping. People who help often get better physical and emotional health. They feel more gratitude, social connection, and feeling of purpose because they helped. And their helping behavior contagiously encourages others to be helpful. If you’re an over-helper, letting someone assist you offers all of these benefits to them.

And there's another reason, a hard one to admit. Sometimes we not only want someone’s problems fixed, but we want to be sure that we’re the ones to do it. A variety of reasons motivate this—self-affirmation, building a relationship, or avoiding guilt. But insisting that we alone are the solution sometimes leaves a person worse-off than if another person stepped in.

Focus on your gifts

Imagine the person who’s always volunteering, often for a task they’ve never done before. My wife has an old friend who did this often at her son’s school. The result was invariably late nights wrestling with a project that meant hours of research, conflicting schedules, wasted supplies, and regret at having volunteered.

It’s hard to say no to a request for help. We worry that it says something bad about us, or more accurately about our intentions. Over-helpers, in particular, often worry about the kind of person it makes them if they say no. Of course, our character isn’t defined by any one moment, and that includes a moment when someone asks for help.

There are plenty of moments where we ought to say no, and they have nothing to do with our character. People naturally ask for help, without enough information about the helpers. Does the helper have enough time? The needed skills? The right ideas about how to help? Asking for help is a reasonable way to find out. This means that it’s also reasonable to get a “no.”

If you’re looking for a reason to say no, let it be when you’re bad at something. Or when your important commitments are filling your time and energy. No person is a bottomless reservoir of ability and resources. Saying no is a way to leave room for requests that use your skills, and to make the most of your opportunities to help.

Withhold help on purpose

Most parents can describe the sharp discomfort that comes from watching a child struggle with something hard. But just as when a mother bird watches her chicks hatch from an egg on their own, or pushes them out of the nest where they’re warm and fed, we also find ourselves urged to help when the best thing to do is stand by.

Swooping in every time a loved one struggles does damage in the long run. It weakens them by taking away experiences that help them grow. For all of us, strength typically comes from doing hard things.

You don’t have to do nothing, of course. You can help with encouragement; cheer them on and give them courage.

My wife and I have stark memories of moments like this with our kids. It might have been a failing grade, a hard conversation, or a broken heart. With time, these moments made our children stronger and more capable. We were there with advice and confidence. People who never have a chance to fail never really have a chance to succeed.

Often over-helpers are driven by emotional empathy, feeling someone else’s feelings. Not only is this is a recipe for burnout, but it also can induce unethical behavior like unfair bias. This is because we usually can’t feel the feelings of two people at once. We’re prone to focus on one, and favor that person over the other.

Emotional empathy is powerful, though, because seeing someone suffer feels like suffering for us, too. That’s why we’re compelled to help.

Instead, it’s worth trying to have more cognitive empathy—sharing another person’s concerns without sharing their feelings. Cognitive empathy is more psychologically sustainable and allows you to hold multiple perspectives at once. You’ll be a better helper with this kind of empathy.

“Easy for you to say,” you might be thinking. Shutting off emotions is tough for anyone, but especially for over-helpers. This is because they are often over-feelers, too. But there are reliable practices that work in giving you more emotional independence when you see someone struggling. Withholding help where it’s not necessary is one such practice.

Enjoy it

In this bit of advice, I want to be careful and clear. There’s a common idea that if you aren’t joyful in your help, whistling while you work, that there’s something wrong with you. Sometimes help is very unpleasant. Caretakers for sick family members feel this intensely. Loving a person doesn’t mean we have to love the hard things we for them.

But helping someone is often a joyful thing, at least eventually if not immediately. Seeing a person flourish with our help is sublime. Being thanked by a truly grateful person is deeply satisfying. The problem is that over-helpers often deny themselves these pleasures.

Most commonly, over-helpers instead worry that they could’ve done more. Somehow, none of the help they’ve given is good enough, so the vibrant joy that comes from helping gets drenched by storm clouds of what could have been.

If you’re an over-helper, don’t let the help you fail to give ruin the pleasure of the help you do give. There will be always be more to do than you have time and capacity for. Always.

If you struggle with this, take time to acknowledge the good you do for others. Write it down so you see it more clearly. If people say thank you, enjoy the moment and say that you’re happy to help. Then truly be happy to help.

Be aware of disorders

There’s some degree of over-helping in all of us. It might be with those close to us, or those we feel responsibility towards. I have a hard time saying no to my students, for example. It sometimes means I have long days and weeks in the course of a semester. It’s manageable enough, though I could do better. This semester I’ve made sure to block out calendar time for the other things I need to be doing. It means students sometimes have to wait a bit longer to meet with me, but it’s a small trade-off with bigger benefits.

For others, though, over-helping is a mental health concern. Helping—like all good things—can be a burden where it extends beyond its proper bounds. Here are some examples of where this happens:

  • Harm OCD is where obsessive thoughts badger a person about how their actions could cause harm to others. People with harm OCD will use compulsive habits, like excessively helping others, to comfort themselves that they aren’t risking hurt to someone else.
  • Scrupulosity (closely related to Harm OCD) involves obsessive thoughts about one’s spiritual standing. Most religious faiths incorporate a belief that we should help others, and so scrupulosity leads a person to help obsessively for assurance that they haven’t sinned or otherwise acted unrighteously.
  • Unmitigated Communion is a condition when a person bases their own happiness on the well-being of a significant person in their life. This focus on someone else is so intense that it leads to an exclusion of self in decision-making. The research shows that women are especially prone to this behavior.

If this sounds like you or an over-helper that you know, it’s a good idea to meet with a mental health professional with expertise in treating these conditions. The very good news is that therapy and/or medication can help immensely.

Over-helpers, take heart

If you’re an over-helper, consider this encouraging thought: you are as worthy and as capable of being helped as anyone else. You also can develop skills and ways of thinking that will make your generosity more sustainable and satisfying.

None of this advice is pointing you to selfishness as an antidote to over-helping. To the contrary, these are ways to become an even better helper. Not a more frenzied, exhausted, guilt-ridden one, but a more confident, thoughtful, and effective one. Take heart in your good heart.

Just Say "You're Welcome"

Just Say "You're Welcome"

I’m not boasting when I say that I get a lot of thank you notes. It’s a common experience for anyone who teaches for a living. Students are naturally kind and many were raised on the idea of thanking their teachers. Also, when teaching at a university, we’re often asked for help by writing a recommendation letter or giving career advice. Students typically follow up with an email or note saying thanks.

My students will also sometimes apologize when asking for help, feeling guilty at the inconvenience they think they’re causing me. I have to remind them that helping students is my job, and I love my job. When students seek help from professors, they’re just getting their money’s worth. I’d much rather accept their thanks than fend off their apologies. 

When Accepting Thanks Is Hard

You almost certainly have a typical response when someone says “Thank you.” There are, for new students of English, at least 16 different expressions to accept a person’s gratitude. You might also be surprised, like me, to learn that there’s controversy about the expression “You’re welcome.” (Such nonsense!)

But some of you—and you know who you are—recoil a bit when people express their thanks. For many, gratitude feels unnecessary because we see helping as expected behavior, not deserving any special recognition. For some it’s hard to accept gratitude because we don’t like feeling superior to others, and gratitude implies indebtedness. And for some gratitude causes serious discomfort because it conflicts with a poor self-image or sense of inadequacy. In this last case, being unable to accept gratitude could be a symptom of depression, OCD, or a similar mental health concern.

Do you ever feel guilty when you get a thank you card or, worse, a gift?

It might feel even worse when the gratitude is more than a quick thanks. Do you ever feel guilty when you get a thank you card or, worse, a gift?

Receiving Thanks Helps Them

If you have a hard time accepting thanks, here’s a wonderful reason to do it anyway: it helps the person thanking you.

The benefits of gratitude are abundant and extensively demonstrated in research. Gratitude practices make people happier and healthier. Grateful people have better social relationships. They even enjoy better sleep and immune systems. Gratitude is, in my opinion, the most effective-but-overlooked daily practice to improve your life.

Accepting gratitude helps with all of this, of course. The opportunity to express gratitude—in small or large ways—enhances our self-efficacy, a critical component of mental health. (Being thanked helps your self-efficacy, too.) We feel empowered when we can effectively and meaningfully express thanks to someone. It helps reduce our sense of unmet obligation and rebalances important relationships.

It’s far more beneficial when we accept gratitude with grace.

Refusing or deflecting thanks can temper or even ruin all of these benefits. It’s far more beneficial when we accept gratitude with grace. So next time someone extends their sincere thanks, help them out by accepting the offer. It’s just another way to help.


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