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Cape Coral Living Magazine

Advice for the Wise Holiday Shopper: Altruism—The “True-For-All” Very Best Gift Ever

Nov 23, 2020 05:00PM ● By DR. RANDALL NIEHOFF

Our Gulf Coast islands are a destination—especially during the holidays. Families and friends  who come to celebrate with each other bring their own to-do lists. Different as schedules may be, there are two activities every list has in common.

The first is dining, either in a restaurant or via takeout. As the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau reports: “What do travelers say they do more of on vacation? Eat!” This includes local fare. I heard of a reunion where a native southerner brought his English bride who was a bit apprehensive about eating frog legs. “What do they taste like?” she asked one of her husband’s cousins. “Well,” he explained, “they sort of taste like gator tail.”

The second common activity is shopping: There are gifts to be gotten and presents to wrap. Tearing yourself away from the beach, the bike, the boat, etc., you will discover delightful places to find bargains on the islands. A colorful cocktail napkin sold locally displays a tongue twister: “She shops shoe sales by the seashore.”  

Both dining and shopping reflect almost instinctual impulses rooted deep in our psyche: self-centeredness (eating) and altruism (giving). Psychologists have evidence that humans have deeply ingrained tendencies to act in either direction. 

 Altruism is when you act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a cost or risk to yourself. Though some may believe that people are fundamentally self-interested, recent research suggests otherwise: The first impulse is to cooperate rather than compete, even among toddlers. What Darwin called “sympathy” or “benevolence” is displayed among nonhuman primates and other mammals. Neuroscience studies show that when people behave altruistically their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward, similar to when they eat chocolate or have sex.  

While we may begin life being needy and wanting to be cared for, it seems that as we mature we can recognize the value of caring for others and choose to become morally responsible, thereby growing into the expression, “the better angels of our nature.” 

So, wherever you may be in these last months of the calendar year, which mark so many special occasions, whether you are visiting or at home, take care of yourself and be well (this includes eating well). Also give care in all the ways you can (well-chosen presents).

A group is formed when two or more folks gather together; an altruistic group is born when someone demonstrates unselfish regard for the well-being of another. Right there and then is created a season of giving—where any day can become a holiday.  

In their profound study of evolutionary progress in 2006, two professors of biology, David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson (no relation), famously summed it up this way: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

Ran Niehoff has been dining and shopping on Sanibel since 1991.