You only win if you’re not trying to win

image: iStock photo

This apparent paradox is inherent to life. It’s built into the side effects of kindness. You only gain (in terms of mental and physical health) if you’re not trying to gain. It’s an example of a catch-22.

Catch-22 is a satirical war novel set in the second world war and written by Joseph Heller. He loves paradoxes and circular reasoning and they pervade the book. An example of a catch-22 is where the only means of escape from something is blocked by a contradictory rule, so there is no actual means of escape. 

In the book, if a pilot wants to get out of flying he must be deemed insane, but to be deemed insane he needs to get evaluated, but to get evaluated proves that he’s sane, and so he can’t get out of flying. And thus, no war pilot can get out of flying.

A popular example in everyday culture is where the only way to qualify for a loan from a bank is to prove that you don’t need the loan, but if you don’t need a loan then there’s no need to go to the bank for one. Another is that you need experience to get a job but you can’t get a job without experience. Or you’ve misplaced your glasses, but in order to see well enough to find them, you need your glasses. I once tried to change my address with my bank after moving house, but the bank insisted on sending the change of address forms to my old address, which meant I couldn’t change my address because I didn’t live there any more.

Life is full of these kinds of contradictions, but not just negative ones like the above ones, where no matter which way you try to go you always end up back at square one. Life has positive ones too. A very important one relates to kindness. I call it Nature’s Catch 22.

Kindness has healthy side effects, which I wrote about in my books, The Five Side Effects of Kindness, and The Little Book of Kindness. In a nutshell, kindness benefits mental and physical health. It leads to healthy brain changes, especially if the kindness is consistent, and it also impacts the heart, immune system and even ageing.

Crucially, all of these effects are due to how kindness feels. The nice feeling you get when you help someone produces ‘kindness hormones’ (akin to stress hormones, but opposite in their effects), and these impact on the brain, blood vessels, immune cells, and many other systems of the body.

But the catch-22 is this. You have to mean it to feel it. If you genuinely mean an act of kindness then, in that moment, you’re not looking to gain from it, and as a consequence you do gain from it because the feeling you get from your genuine act of kindness will benefit your mental and physical health.

On the contrary, if you don’t genuinely mean the kindness you do, if you’re doing it because you want to gain from it, then you won’t feel it, and if you don’t feel it then you won’t get any beneficial side effects and so you don’t gain anything.

In other words, the only way to get the side effects of kindness is if you’re not trying to get the side effects. Nature’s catch-22.

There’s other examples of nature’s catch-22s, like:

-You won’t find peace by trying to find peace, but only by accepting the noise in your life.

-You often get to where you want to get to when you stop trying and accept where you are.


-when you stop trying to change yourself and accept yourself as you are, you tend to spontaneously change by gaining greater self esteem.

Maybe nature’s catch-22 is a general principle in life. These seeming conundrums are maybe nature’s way of guiding us towards behaviours that make life better for everyone, where everyone wins. 

Maybe nature is trying to tell each of us that you win in life not by trying to win, but by being a good person.

Posted in ,


  1. Karen J on July 16, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    Healthy foundational thinking for us all. I so enjoyed reading this article. As a wellbeing trainer and mind body teacher, finding the right words for illustrating the need for acceptance, especially when it’s the last thing we might want to do, aren’t always on tap. But linking kindness with ‘don’t try; let it be and do what needs to be done’ attitude to enhance self esteem which leads to acceptance, is a wise approach. The mirror effect of giving without expecting to receive.
    Thank you for the clarity and for the insight. It makes so much sense.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on July 16, 2021 at 2:05 pm

      Thanks Karen, I’m so pleased to hear that. 🙂

  2. Ann Ayton on July 16, 2021 at 1:53 pm

    You have the loveliest knack of, not exactly simplifying, but peeling away the noise, the extra unnecessary woolly fluff that obscures and homing in on the nub of stuff. Thank you again!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on July 16, 2021 at 2:04 pm

      Thanks so much, Ann. That made me smile. 🙂

Leave a Comment