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How can we define altruism?
As the festive season draws ever near, it may be time to ask ourselves what it really means to give. Do people ever really give without any expectations of reciprocity? Those who believe in the existence of altruism would say so, endorsing the idea of people being able to express “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”. Whilst selfless concern may constitute one form of altruism, Mattieu Ricard (2015) states that an altruistic individual will also be willing to take risks for the good of others. With or without risks, a further definition adds that altruism is a helping behavior that is motivated only by the desire to relieve suffering, and without any anticipation of reward to come (Borders & Irwin, 2001) Altruism may, therefore, be expressed through prosocial behaviors, such as helping, comforting, sharing, philanthropy and community service. May we then consider altruism to be the polar opposite to selfishness? Altruism is a hotly debated issue, perplexing academics in a range of fields.
Does it even exist?
It baffles evolutionary biologists, who question why any individual would help anyone else to their own detriment. Indeed, this should not be evolutionarily stable, as selfless behavior often times leaves a person more vulnerable (West, Gardner & Griffin, 2006). Besides biologists, behavioral psychologists had previously been skeptical as to the existence of altruism, considering behavior to be controlled only by overt reinforcements and punishments (Borders & Irwin, 2001). Social psychologists also took a more cynical stance, believing helping behavior to be motivated by a need to relieve our own personal stress (Borders & Irwin, 2001). This would be in line with egoism: the tendency to value things only to the extent of one’s personal interest.
Figures don’t lie…
How can we account for the remarkable acts of courage, kindness, and selflessness that leave us in awe at the good of other human beings? In 2012, the USA saw an estimated $228.93 billion in charitable donations made by individuals (National Center for Charitable Statistics, 2012). Not only do people give money, but also their time. Between 2013 and 2014, the USA saw 68.2 million people volunteering through organizations (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014). There are countless acts of goodness, generosity, and kindness to be found on a daily basis, and positive psychology is at the forefront of discovering why.
Altruism and its magic
Positive psychology considers kindness, generosity, care, compassion and altruistic love to be closely related terms, the commonality being the orientation of the self toward another (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Such states are thought to lead to helping behaviors, which while not based on reciprocity, may bring benefits to both the giver and the recipient of the good will. The fact that the person acting altruistically benefits from the interaction does not detract from the goodness of the deed, providing that those very benefits were not the giver’s ultimate goal (Ricard, 2015). It almost sounds too good to be true, but the benefits to the giver may extend well beyond the feel-good glow or “helper’s high”. Such acts of kindness seem to buffer illness, and perhaps even mortality, confirmed by a study of adults over the age of 55. Over a 4-year study period, it was found that those who volunteered for 2 or more organizations had 63% lower probability of dying (Oman, Thoresen, & McMahon, 1999). Indeed, volunteering boosted both mental and physical health. As human beings have a fundamental need for belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) such a need may well be met through altruistic acts. Moreover, the more we satisfy this need, the greater the well-being we experience (Pavey, Greitemeyer & Sparks, 2011). Added to this, simply being aware of kindness in oneself and others is connected with greater feelings of happiness. With these heightened levels of well-being, we may be incited to be even kinder, as happy people tend to be kinder. However, moderation may be the key, as other studies caution the prioritization of other people’s need above one’s own, as this may lead to a negative impact on health and happiness.
What makes a person altruistic?
Altruism may well be somewhat heritable (Rushton et al, 1981), as is a considerable amount of the trait agreeableness. However, it is empathy that drives us to act altruistically, and 28% of a variance in empathic concern may be attributed to genetic factors (Davis, Luce & Kraus, 1994). Besides empathy and agreeableness, having a prosocial personality and being at an advanced stage of moral development also predicts altruism. That being said, altruism may not necessarily be a stable trait, as present mood can play its part too. It has been found that people who are put in a good mood are more willing to help others (Carlson, Charlin & Miller, 1988). This could be because those individuals are less likely to stop and process the situation before deciding to cooperate.
Can we become more altruistic, or is it all genetically-predestined?
Altruism may actually start from age 1, a time in which children exhibit mutual aid and cooperation that they were not taught (Ricard, 2015). However, at around age 5, social relationships and notions of reciprocity come into play. As future kindness and prosocial behavior can be predicted during childhood and adolescence (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), parents may wish to cultivate high moral standards, have clear rules, and hold the expectation that their children should help others. Empathy may be fostered in children, perhaps by inviting them to reflect on the impact their behavior has (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Even as adults, it’s never too late to become more altruistic. Matthieu Ricard suggests that we learn to cultivate deep feelings of compassion for others. He proposes meditation as a way of bringing about a transformation in both the way we see others and the whole world around us. Ultimately, altruism is a choice. As Martin Luther King once said,
“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness”.
Lisa is currently studying a Master’s degree in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology. She’s an aspiring Positive Psychology Coach, teacher, and writer, who feels passionately about helping people to live more authentic and meaningful lives. She’s annoyingly optimistic, armed with plenty of enthusiasm and never misses a chance to to spread the positive psychology word!