Most humans like to help each other out. There is a psychology and philosophy to how we do it already (online or in person) but there are also opportunities to create better, mindful new ‘help platforms’. Let’s begin with more on the topic itself.
We can usually agree that help is gratefully received by most people but it turns out it also has benefits for the giver. Ever since the first humans on earth worked out they could get more done if they sought the aid of others, humans have continued to ask for and receive help. Whether it comes in the form of good advice, tips, a lending hand, or just cold hard cash, help leads to actions that can significantly impact your life. The act of giving has benefits besides the possibility of getting something back in return. It has positive impacts on our health. Helping makes us feel happier – it’s backed up by scientific evidence. Maybe that’s why we have the natural inclination to help because deep down our bodies know it’s good for us. It could explain why we often find ourselves volunteering help even when we’re not asked for it. We hear a problem or need, and our instinct to fix it kicks in. Humans just can’t help helping. It’s especially true if we have empathy for the recipient – close friends, family, neighbors, work colleagues, our relationships make it even more likely we’ll help.
We help those close to us but we also aren’t averse to direct our goodwill to strangers. Help from people we don’t know is remarkable and welcome. Surely the kindness of strangers must be one of our best human traits?
Help for the Traveler
I have my own story of receiving help from early in my life. It made me appreciate just how kind and powerful it can be. When I was only 3 years old my family embarked on a 5000 mile road trip from England to Pakistan. While it sounds like a crazy thing to do, it was not uncommon in the 1970’s. Immigrant families would make the long trip back to their mother country by car, thus avoiding the high cost of flights that come with a large family. My Dad, ever the optimist, expected the entire journey to take a couple of weeks but after two, our small van developed radiator issues. We were left stranded somewhere in Bulgaria (and later somewhere in Iran).
Although we’d prepared well, the fact was we didn’t know anyone in the country, we had few options to communicate, and were rapidly running down our cash reserves. The situation called for help, desperately. Maybe more than help, more like a miracle! Thankfully help did arrive from out of nowhere and several times more along the journey (the radiator malfunctioned a few more times before our destination). Lucky for us, some locals who had spotted our misfortune took pity on us and offered help. And they gave a lot of help – above and beyond. They provided us with food and drink, located mechanics, waived us costs, and sent us on our way. Although I was too young to remember much of the detail, I heard the stories recounted many times and it stuck with me ever since. I knew for a fact that complete strangers were capable of extraordinary help – and with no expectation of a reward. I always remind myself of that.
Years later, I had to relocate my own family. -It was also a 5000 mile trip as it happens, but this time from England to California. I was about to experience my own story of a journey aided by the kindness of strangers. There is something about a traveller, an immigrant in this case, that should (and often does) lead others to answer the call for help. Although my circumstances were a lot less dire than the road trip, I still gratefully welcomed the support. It came in many forms; advice from colleagues and other parents, family, neighbors and strangers checking in.
The Psychology of Help
Some say it’s motivational based i.e. what you stand to gain from helping is what drives you to do the act. Others say its evolution – an innate trait that has developed over time as we’ve understood the benefits. More than likely it’s a combination of both. It’s complicated further with certain behaviors and circumstances. For example, the bystander effect – where people avoid helping if there is a crowd, believing others will do it. This is the case in real life or online. Plenty of us are keenly aware of it whenever we’re left hanging sending out a group email starting ‘Hi everyone…’ or posting to a support forum. Our likelihood to respond to a call for help subtly changes because of so many factors.
There are studies that make a positive correlation between the act of giving and happiness. It’s a fact, helping others can ease depression. Since covid-19 invaded our lives, depression has sky rocketed with the rate in the US tripling according to recent studies. There is a desperate need these days for remedies for unhappiness and maybe helping others could go some way towards that. There are many people who could with a hand right now.
We can now better measure the impact of what we do or say with new technology like MRI to track brain activity. It turns out it’s not just the act of helping that makes people happy but even intent alone can decrease depression.
You can find more here including the insight that helping others to regulate their emotion, can help lift your own. It doesn’t need to be physical help – giving advice leads to positive emotions too. But like anything, the extremes hold a warning. Too much help in the way of emotional support can lead to a type of ‘empathy burnout’ which itself leads to depression. There is a view that social media leads us down this path which I wrote about here. Although this talks about consumption of social media in general and not specifically help, there is a case to be made that too much helping can lead to stress. We need to work out just how much gives us the perfect balance.
The Philosophy of Help
Most religions and cultures encourage its members to help and some will readily stipulate specific rules. Most will call on us to help our fellow humans that are poor, weak or hungry. Some religions give general guidance and others (e.g. Islam) give specific instructions for charity, asking everyone for a payment of ‘Zakat’ – 2 and 1/2 percent of all profits to those in need. There is a moral obligation whether it’s through a religion or just being part of society which encourages us to look out for each other. We could spend a long time debating various opinions such as the socialist vs the libertarian viewpoint but this isn’t an in-depth look at the politics of help.
One theme of debate in philosophy is from the work of Immanual Kant. Among his most influential beliefs, he proposed the morality around help and the importance of intent. Kant believed that ‘so long as the intention of an action is to abide by the moral law, then the consequences are irrelevant.’ This was brought to life by an example – if a shopkeeper could cheat a customer but decided not to because it was bad for business, they are not moral but simply choosing to do the right thing because it leads to profit. If they could cheat the customer they would so their intention is not moral, even though it would appear they are doing the right thing. This could be true for many businesses today. Some will appear socially responsible for their brand reputation knowing it leads to more sales but Kant would have quickly pointed out the insincerity of their intention.
There is so much more to consider on moral duties to help, altruism, pay back – and our personal philosophies of help. Somehow we reach an equilibrium of the amount of help we will give and how much we decide to accept. There is the psychology of help to consider but also the philosophy to it that we personally follow.
The Future of Help
Online help hasn’t been harnessed well enough in the platforms we have today. It exists in many different forms within social networks and community forums where anyone can ask for and receive help. In theory our lives should be much easier with all this online help available to us. Yet stress levels continue to grow. Perhaps it’s eclipsed by some of the downsides of online life – 24 hour access to work, feelings of jealousy or frustration from social media, bombardment of information and sadly misinformation too. The opportunity for help is mixed in with the distraction of everything else that pops up and takes our attention away. There are ‘giving platforms’ like Gofundme or Kickstarter that ask for money directly. However, often times online help is usually a feature e.g. Facebook or Nextdoor recommendations. Quora is the closest for helpful knowledge and advice.
But we need more options for help in all it’s forms not just money focused but genuine advice and knowledge especially from people who’ve had first hand experience. It wouldn’t hurt if these new options were easier to navigate and made it more likely to ask for or receive help.
A Platform designed exclusively for help?
How do we build a place where help can be requested and responded to effectively and efficiently online. It could be a challenge. There are lots of pitfalls as we’ve seen from our current generation of platforms. It can start off in earnest and quickly break down with the influence of bad intentions or just negligence. But we’ve learnt a lot and like every new wave of products, we build on what we had before. There are aspects we that work such as being able to target people quickly and easily. We know how to get responses fast with less clicks, we’ve worked out shortcuts and how to make slick user interfaces. We’ve figured out how to receive feedback in an instant. We’re on our way to truly personalize, filter and supercharge with intelligent artificial intelligence. We know more than ever about the psychology of help and how important intent is. We know most people follow a philosophy of help.
All the mechanisms and ingredients are there to build a ‘help’ platform that is focused on just that one purpose.
Now we need to find people with the passion and ability to make it a reality.
Do you want to help right now? Check out our Recommend lists – the first one is a request for ‘books that had an impact on your career’. We want to create recommendation lists built from real, first hand experience, to help other people on their way.