We all have seen a friend or family member go through a difficult time at several points in our lives. Subsequently, we have all felt the need to get involved in that drama, regardless of whether or not we were invited to partake in the suffering. I’m sure that each and every one of you reading this has said that you hate drama and hate getting other people’s shit on your shoes, yet time and time again there you are, smack in the middle of a difficult situation that you had no initial part in. We all involve ourselves in other people’s problems, and for better or worse, there are basic reasons for this. Reasons such as..
4. We genuinely care about someone’s well-being, which in turn enhances our own well-being
This may be the most altruistic reason we’re consistently putting ourselves in the middle of people’s problems. It makes sense. If we care about someone, we want to see them do well and help them when times are bad. That’s called being a good friend (or lover, son, etc.). If we didn’t help the people we care about when they needed it most, we wouldn’t be living up to our end of the friend contract (if and when that becomes a real thing). We want to take care of those that we love and helping them through hard times is the best way to display that caring.
From a young age we are instilled with the idea that we should help others in need. This only gets magnified when we see someone we know go through hardship, regardless of whether that person is a coworker, classmate, or fellow porn-lover. Some people are more helpful and more involved in others’ problems because they may have higher base levels of empathy, but to some extent we all have someone we have tried to help by digging our hands in their dirty laundry. Helping a friend in need makes us feel good, and that good feeling is magnified when we are successfully able to aid them out of a tough situation.
There is another side to this reason, however. Save for maybe Ghandi and Mother Teresa, we help others because we — even subconsciously — bank on return favors, like an unconscious quid pro quo. We may very well care deeply about the person we are trying to help and will do everything in our power to alleviate their suffering, but we also hope that if the shoe was on the other foot, they would do the same. Rest assured, that person will probably return the favor, because they are human too (unless they have antisocial personality disorder, in which case run for the hills). This does not mean that you’re evil and your motives are selfish and you need to rethink your definition of friendship, because you’re still helping them out of a cause of concern for their well-being. Helping our friends or family when they need it is a way to increase our own happiness. If your friends are happy, and your intervention in a dilemma of theirs is a root cause of that happiness, then naturally your own happiness increases as well. It’s a win-win for all parties involved.
3. We want to be seen as a hero
Think about a time when a friend was in trouble. What did you do? My guess was everything you could to help that friend out of trouble, be it with financial help, motivational speaking, or free clinic passes (depending on where you know that friend from). Sure, your main goal was as I stated above — you genuinely wanted to help that person. But there is also an underlying motivation at play: we want to be heroes to people. It’s based on our egos; helping others out of trouble make us seem like saviors to those in need, and that is a huge ego boost.
It’s not a bad thing to do, because the end result is positive: you helped someone you know and/or care about out of a hard time (that may be a bit of a Machiavellian statement). Wanting to be a hero stems from us wanting to seem reliable, and what better way to make yourself seem reliable than being the person to turn to when shit goes south? Of course there are limits to what we can do, especially when it comes to financial heroics, because we’re not all as rich as Warren Buffett, but we’ll still try to help in any way we can, or offer to help at the very least. Doing anything in the way of helping a person in need reinforces our positive image in our minds and is our best attempt to project those feelings toward the person we’re trying to help.
Making yourself seem like the dependable person in a group of friends is another way for us to ensure our place in our chosen social circles. It endears us to the people we want to be endeared to. It’s what makes us an indispensable part of our social realms. How many times have you been “out-heroed” (not a word, but I’ve already sent a request in to Webster’s) by someone else you know in the effort to aid a mutual friend? That surge of jealousy you feel is not actually hatred or anger towards the person doing the helping (though there may be a twinge of one or both), but a worry you feel that you may not be as indispensable as you hoped to be. Anything that is harmful to our egos is something that we need to deflect, and being the best helper to a friend in need becomes the first weapon we have in the battle of altruism.
2. We are drawn to negativity
The human brain is drawn to negativity. It may be completely asinine, but it’s also true. Human beings are by trait, pessimistic creatures. It stems from our evolution. Back when man was first evolving, having a negative outlook on events and encounters was what allowed the species to continue living. When Oog the Caveman heard a rustling in the brush behind him, his first thought wasn’t some optimistic idea that it may be a new pet kitten or some naked lady looking for sex, but rather some large toothy predator that was looking for its next meal because cavemen didn’t have domestic cats and the women were probably back with the rest of the group because they were smarter. Had Oog not been pessimistic about that situation and hightailed it out of there, he probably would’ve been devoured and shat out as fertilizer. Obviously that’s not too much of a concern in modern times, but still it can be a useful trait. The end result of this aspect of evolution is our attraction to negativity, and there is plenty of negativity in watching a fellow human work through a difficult time.
This isn’t to say that it’s a bad thing, but this goes hand in hand with why we help other people when they are feeling down. We are initially drawn to the negativity and the drama, then we do what we can to help because we want to be seen as reliable to our friends in need. There is no fighting it, and there is nothing wrong with it.
Consequently, with the shift in contemporary human nature, there is an upside to this gravitation toward negativity. That shift is that there is positivity to be garnered from helping others through hard times. While the negativity may have attracted us in the first place, if we are successful in aiding a friend weather that storm, there is a positive result that reinforces our behavior and allows us to feel good about ourselves for helping out a friend (or whomever it was that needed our help). In short, the positive feelings reaped from alleviating a friend’s negative emotions allow us to increase our own positive emotions, and happiness ensues.
1. We use it as a way to compare our lives to other people’s
As opposed to the first point, this reason is not at all altruistic. As humans, we want to know how well we are doing in life. We need the social validation. What better way to get a firsthand look than to try and help someone going through a difficult time? It allows us to examine our lives versus theirs and feel slightly more satisfied about decisions we’ve made, be them about romantic partners, career choices, or whether or not to go to Taco Bell, because we’re not the ones currently crying out for help with a difficult circumstance, but rather we’re the ones looking like a beacon of light in the rough seas of life (at least in our own minds we are).
We all need that validation that says “you’re making the right decision, keep going!” Helping others through hard times is the quickest way to get it. It gives us comfort in two ways: one of which is that we feel needed (as stated ad nauseum), the other is that it allows us to see that everyone needs help from time to time. It assuages our anxiety over our own problems when we see that others go through shit as well. Again, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it’s in our nature. It’s a part of the competitive aspect that we are all born with, and this is that trait at its most basic level. We all see ourselves in some form of competition (call it the game of life) with other people and one way to see that we are “winning” is by seeing others encounter problems. We can add bonus points to our scores by being the helping hand to those with problems, which reinforces the idea that we are doing as well as or better than someone we know.
This tendency may not be overt, and more often it’s entirely subconscious, as most of our base human traits are. It does not make us bad people, it just makes us people. Comparing ourselves to others having a hard time is the quickest and easiest way to reassure ourselves that we are on the right path and that we are making the right choices. It’s why we always feel like crap when we juxtapose ourselves to people who are always happy and loving life, yet feel a twinge of pride when we see someone going through trouble. It’s not that we’re happy that someone is having a hard time (unless you really dislike that person, in which case you probably need some help), it’s that we’re relieved to see that others have problems that are the same as or worse than ours.