Altruism is defined as the ‘disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others’. In practice what does this mean.
When you observe a truly altruistic person, they appear to have a deep sense of needing to do something good and of value for those in need, who are vulnerable – to give back with no expectation of any exchange of value. Which begs the question – what is it that gives them this altruistic drive?
A natural empathy for those who are struggling will always underpin any altruistic gestures, particularly if there is an economic or physical imbalance. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others, but more importantly to accept those feelings almost as though you have those feelings yourself.
Empathy is more valuable than sympathy in terms of understanding ways to give back – while someone who is empathetic is more in tune with the others person’s feelings and circumstances, someone who sympathises does so from a more objective point of view, which puts you at one remove from that person.
Is Altruism ever truly selfless?
Maybe the question should be, does it matter? Because if everyone benefits then that is a win-win situation.
There’s plenty of evidence that ‘giving back’ improves your emotional wellbeing. Also known as the ‘helper’s high’, there are claims that relieving stress through performing good deeds will help you live longer. There are several ways it can help.
Widens your perspective
It is easy to tunnel vision on your own life and problems, which simply adds to a sense of despair, isolation and depression. Taking a step back by helping others who are in more challenging situations can help to either put your own situation is greater perspective, or at the very least distract you momentarily from your own problems.
Builds gratitude into your daily life
There are plenty of studies highlighting the link between nurturing a ‘gratitude attitude’ and experiencing more happiness. Developing a sense of gratitude encourages you to look upon the world with a more positive outlook, and teaches you how to turn negative situations into something which is more positive.
When you give back, it gives you a greater sense of gratitude about your own situation. Not just that, but your growing positive attitude is contagious. The more you give back with that overall sense of gratitude, the more your positive outlook will be passed on to other people. You are literally spreading joy!
Releases endorphins for a natural high
A recent study explored the MRI brain scans of those who gave to charity, and the results highlighted how the act of giving stimulated the reward centre of the brain – also known as the mesolimbic pathway. It highlighted how the act of giving released those pleasure, energy giving hormones such as endorphins, in the same way that exercise does – giving you a natural high that can dampen down depression and allow you to see and think more clearly.
If the kick back of doing acts of compassion is that your own emotional and physical wellbeing is improved, then that can only be encouraged. But like any act, there needs to be a balance. Too many acts of compassion could lead to overwhelm and burnout. Which begs the question, does the personal positive act of altruism actually help to balance out the act itself. But knowing and understanding that you too will benefit, it will protect you from reaching the point of burnout and overwhelm, which those who work in the care industry can experience all too often.
Self care is never selfish.