No more Mr nice guy

Does being nice to people really make us happier? Not always.

Most companies train their staff to smile and be polite to customers, even when customers are rude, ungrateful, surly, demanding and awkward. But a two-year research programme carried out by the University of Frankfurt am Main proved beyond doubt that when people suppress their true feelings, especially for extended periods of time, there can be negative consequences for their health.

When customers are rude and workers keep smiling, it is the workers who become stressed. But the researchers in Frankfurt go even further – faking happiness leads to burnout, depression and in extreme cases, can accelerate the onset of heart disease.

To prove the point, the performance of 4,000 staff was assessed at airports, hospitals and call centres. Half the volunteers were told that they must smile and be polite at all times and the other half were allowed to answer back to customers.

Tests carried out during their shifts showed that those who were allowed to express themselves honestly displayed only a slightly increased heart rate, but those constrained to politeness found their heart rates noticeably increased at the end of the encounter.

So, should you succumb to temptation, stand up for yourself, look after Number 1 and get back at people who’ve pissed you off… or should you put others first and turn the other cheek?

Maybe there’s an evolutionary reason we are tempted to get back at people, possibly to keep them in their place. Maybe there’s also an evolutionary reason in favour of altruism. Maybe evolution dictates that there must be a balance between the two. Altruism may indeed be good for the many, but looking after Number 1 might be better for personal sanity.

Richard Dawkins is someone I don’t particularly like – he belongs to the ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ school of thought – and more to the point, I dislike his smarmy arrogance. He’s on my bucket list of people I would like to slap before I die. But his view that altruism is part of human evolutionary survival strategy is hard to dispute.

That altruism benefits the recipient is indisputable. But altruism also benefits the donor by increasing levels of personal wellbeing – the conscience is eased and ‘good’ always becomes apparent in the end. People who are ‘good’ and ‘kind to others’ earn a reputation for being good and kind people and are thus held in higher esteem by their group.

Altruism has been linked to higher personal satisfaction with life and greater happiness… and lower levels of depression. There is lots of hard evidence connecting altruism and social cohesion. There is also a strong positive relationship between altruism and physical health, including reduced mortality rates in groups that lean toward altruism.

As with a host of other healthy activities, from exercise to appreciation of music, maintaining relationships requires an investment of personal resources. These include giving valuable assets to others – time, energy, money. Giving and sharing has advantages for all members of the group, so it’s good for us too, right? Or do the benefits of giving and sharing outweigh the costs?

We know that we are more likely to receive support from fellow group members during times of stress or crisis if we have helped and supported them in the past. The ability to identify with groups and their members provide us with a sense of purpose in life. This is true of all groups, whether religious, musical, sporting, or even groups of conspiracy theorists.

Evolutionary psychologists have come up with the ‘altruism hypothesis,’ which proposes that helpful group members tend to be perceived as deserving high status and are more likely to be selected as partners with whom to interact and cooperate.

So it could be that being helpful to others within a group can be seen as a ‘costly signal’ – a behaviour that consumes resources – but which ultimately signals the person’s positive aspects to the other group members. Kindness and consideration buys status in the group.

This kind of trade-off can be seen in the animal kingdom where members of some species have learned to cooperate. Meerkats take turns acting as lookouts while the rest of the group eat and play. Gorillas look after each other’s young – as do humans – and Elephants help each other in order to protect their young calves.

It is possible that the popularity of altruistic individuals increase their chances of reproducing and passing on their genes, making altruism an evolutionary advantageous behaviour – group connections are fostered through giving and receiving assistance that benefit health and wellbeing. This also applies to helping those who are not part of our immediate group, such as refugees. Such actions help to show people in our own group that we are generous, intelligent, and therefore desirable.

So, identifying with social groups and their members provides us with a sense of purpose in life, as well as the knowledge that we will be likely to receive support from fellow group members during times of crisis. This suggests that any costs involved in being nice are ultimately outweighed by its advantages.

But… it is possible to be too nice. For example, where people become overburdened with the need to care for, or provide for others, it can change the nature of the relationship. Here’s an example:

A young swimmer gets out of her depth in heavy surf and is drowning. Just when she’s giving up hope, of all the onlookers on the beach, only one man swims out and saves her life. Both make it back to shore, both exhausted, both lucky to be alive. They hug and exchange contact details. A few weeks later, the man calls the woman he saved and explains that he needs $1,000 for his daughter’s operation. Of course the woman understands and immediately sends him the money. A month later, the man telephones again and asks for another $500, this time to take his sick mother on one last holiday. Question: at which point is it appropriate to say ‘No?’

This sort of decision is often present in people who spend a lot of personal time helping others. We understand that helping others is important, but not if it leads to a point where the burden is unreasonably great or burnout. Striking a balance between helping others and looking after your own personal wellbeing equally important.

Sometimes we need to focus on the people in the social group we identify with most strongly. In this context, the people requiring help are also likely to receive support from other group members – reducing some of the pressure.

Of course being nice is also about having a pleasant attitude and eschewing non-aggressive, manipulative or vengeful behaviour. But the evidence for this is not always clear-cut. Feeling and suppressing anger is bad for physical health and can cause depression.

The overall message is to try and avoid becoming angry, while retaining the ability to express your anger or dissatisfaction in an appropriate way. Those who lose their temper usually feel some sense of regret or remorse afterwards. That is also part of the human survival mechanism. Feeling down after an argument reminds us to take care not to do it again.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.