I have been serving organic milk and vegetables to my family for over a decade. I suffer from a sense of malaise when it comes to volunteering. These are two unrelated reflections.


There’s a study out in the Social, Psychological and Personality Science Journal linking those two distinct ideas. The research by Kendall J. Eskine concludes that folks who eat organic food are inclined be judgmental, “which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.”

The niceness factor is apparently linked to the food we eat—the sweeter, fattier, hormone rich diets eliciting a nicer attitude. So go ahead, be generous with Aunt Jemima’s sublime syrup over your pancakes. It is responsible for sensitizing your empathic receptors; and watch out, that craving for bitter gourd comes packaged with moral turpitude.

In the study Eskine calibrated goodness by the level of indignation to certain questionable scenarios including a man eating his dead dog and lawyers casing hospital wards for potential lawsuits. But, there’s a double negative in that definition. It’s an odd way to identify goodness.

I believe that at its most rudimentary breakdown, goodness is largely about sharing. How much of your time, money, resources or goodwill do you share?

I remember my dad, a skinflint till his very last days on earth, repeatedly justifying his fiscal restraint with the adage, “Charity begins at home,” and yet being extremely generous with his time and patience. In my youthful arrogance, I criticized him for the former and never thought much of the latter. Maturity and experience have taught me otherwise.

Eskine’s study suggests that Whole Foods’ produce jettisons wholesome intentions; people who buy organic food are less likely to volunteer. But, the idea that volunteerism defines goodness is erroneous. Take the case of Jerry Sandusky: Penn State’s Assistant Football coach  notably acknowledged as the founder of the non-profit, The Second Mile was recently convicted of being a heinous child molester.

I find the assumptions of the Eskine study lacking coherency. Decency is not dictated by a single trait. It has many subtleties. We are driven to be nice to the people we love. Our moral calculus goes into high gear when we have something to gain, as in being pleasant to a boss or a romantic interest. We are also compelled to give when we have a surplus. But, I believe that true altruism is donating something (advice, money, possessions, time) that pinches to give up.

Niceness is a strategic skill to have, no matter what the motive and irrespective of where you shop for your greens.

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....