Why I am a selfish good-deed ninja, and why you should be one too

I am a good-deed ninja. Whenever I step out of the house, I keep my eyes peeled for any opportunity there is for me to swoop in and help someone. Pick up a shoe bag? Done. Provide directions? Done. Pretend to be angry at a misbehaving child so that his mother can get a moment’s peace? Done. Commit acts of random smiling and waving? Done and done.

Someone trailing me might even accuse me of being artificially and annoyingly positive.

It’s not because I’m some kind of angel that I do this (my girlfriend would say that I’m more devil than angel). I do this because it gives me a performance advantage. When I manage to help a stranger, I feel happier, sharper, more engaged with the world and my work, and in some strange way, even more capable than I probably am. I feel much more positive. And the science is out — while the numbers should give any critical reader some pause, author Shawn Achor has amassed a wealth of evidence to bolster the claim that a more positive brain gives us “23% more energy, 31% more productivity, 3x more creativity” (source).

While I’ve only just started consciously looking out for “good-deed ninja” situations, the power of a good deed for the doer, and not just the recipient, was already displayed for me in university. I often tell stories of how I used to be a nervous, anxious wreck after serving my national service (NS), when all of a sudden I was thrust into a situation where I wanted to excel, wanted to get straight A’s, wanted to be the best in the grand old National University of Singapore — in stark contrast to my army experience where I was a lowly corporal who didn’t have much to do beyond obeying orders (not much demand on the brain there). Imagine walking around school permanently on anxious high-alert, always on the edge of panic. I was that person.

Then imagine me, sitting and reading anxiously in the NUS library, with my throat constricted and my heart racing because I needed to get through my reading and I needed to get started on my essay so that I could get the A that I thought I really needed. I was sitting near one of those vending machines filled with snacks, because I spent most of the day nauseous on caffeine (got to focus!) that I couldn’t eat much beyond M&Ms and sugared peanuts.

Some poor girl then broke me out of my anxious trance, as she stood facing the machine, staring at it for an unreasonably long time. So I got up to see what the matter was and saw that she was about to have a meltdown because her snack got stuck in the machine and she had no more coins left (crisis!). I selflessly (inoticedshewasattractive) offered to buy the same snack so that hers would get unstuck, over her refusals (“eh no need no need!”).

When our snacks fell out of recalcitrant machine, her undisguised smile broke through my fog of panic. Her smile was a complex mixture of relief, gratitude, and (probably) hunger. I think the pleasant shock of the panic-fog clearing was great enough that I stood speechless, staring at her for an extremely awkward length of time, forcing her retreat from the very strange good-deed nerd.

When I tell this story, my students always ask me if I got her number (“You owe me money now, let’s swap numbers so you can settle this debt.”), but the truth is, I was just marveling at the fact that I no longer felt anxious. The attractive girl had faded from my consciousness, because I was so relieved that my heart was no longer racing, my throat was no longer restricted, and I felt sane.

A single good deed was more effective than any dose of Valium — with no side effects! This is just one example of how powerful a good deed can be, especially when we take joy from the positive effect that we can have on people through actions that cost close to nothing.

The conclusion of the larger story is a little bit more mundane, with me abandoning the quest for grades (because the anxiety was driving me crazy) for the rock band quest. If I had paid greater attention to my mental health, I probably would have ended up with a better degree than the one I have now.

This should not degenerate into empty self-help platitudes about positive thinking, but the fact is that genuinely happy people do have a neurological advantage over perpetually unhappy people — and that’s why I am a selfish good-deed ninja.


My more mature students might want to consider:

  • What makes an action selfish or altruistic?
  • Is it a contradiction if I selfishly try to be altruistic? Am I just being selfish?
  • Should I have asked for the girl’s number?
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