Altruism: Powerful and Amazing

By Rick Forbus, Ph.D.

Altruism involves the acts of unselfishness, humanity, philanthropy and helping others. No matter what your worldview may be, helping others is a healing endeavor both psychologically and emotionally.

When we choose to help someone or help in a situation we are choosing to:

  1. Assist
  2. Lighten a burden
  3. Aid
  4. Lend a hand
  5. Facilitate something for someone

Many people whom I coach suffer from “me-itis” or egocentric behaviors. Sometimes their selfawareness is so low that they aren’t really tuned in to the fact they are so self-consumed that it is unhealthy. Selfish behaviors have many times caused undue stress and even the loss of people with great talent under their supervision. Whether this selfishness happens in the business world or in the personal realm, it can lead to stress, anxiety and loss of passion for life in general.

Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.  – Henry Ward Beecher

French philosopher Auguste Comte coined the word altruisme (Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others) in 1851, and two years later it entered the English language as altruism. Many considered his ethical system, which stated that the only moral acts were those intended to promote the happiness of others.

Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. – Frederick Buechner

There are so many life experiences that flag my memory as I write this. My mother has done so many acts of kindness for others that it would require an anthology of stories and a catalogue to keep the reading manageable. She has done everything from baking a casserole or cookies to sewing something for another family. Even now, in her eighties, she walks next door to take a widowed friend an entire meal. My dad portrays the same altruism. I can still picture him making Christmas sweets, including divinity candy and peanut brittle, and then packaging it all in Christmas tins to distribute to friends. Memories of both my parents framing my dad’s art to give away or someone else’s photos, certificates or art at no cost, as an act of kindness, are vivid examples of thoughtfulness that still happen today.

Modeling altruism is a powerful device for children and grandchildren, employees and young managers. Thinking about someone else’s needs more than your own is a really good behavioral and emotional exercise. Mental healthfulness and emotional cleansing can occur with such outward-facing actions. The excerpt below is just one powerful example of the research supporting altruistic behaviors as a positive life-choice.

A Stress Management Blog By Elizabeth Scott, M.S. records this:

As many charities will tell you, the feeling you get from giving to those in need is a reward in itself. Well, now this assertion is backed by research! Scientists from the University of Oregon recently used fMRI machines to study the brain activities of women and monitor changes in emotions and thought patterns. They then gave the women $100 and, as expected, the pleasure centers of their brains lit up. In a later part of the experiment, the women were given a choice to donate some of the money to a charity, and those who did again experienced an activation of the brain’s pleasure centers. This second part of the experiment is significant, showing that we actually do receive rewards from seeing others receive good things–a scientific basis for altruism.

My own experiences confirm this science. Simple acts of kindness bring about two things, according to my understanding: (1) When I do something unsolicited for someone else, the rule of reciprocity usually kicks in. There is much writing about this, but the simple finding is that many people will want to respond in a positive way. Actually, people who have received an unsolicited act of kindness will, without being conscious of the “why” behind the decision, have a positive opinion of you and your general efforts. (2) As these women in the brain study showed, a sense of warmth and pleasure invade your sense of being with feelings of accomplishment. Even though many of these acts of kindness are simple (words, notes, special attention to detail, etc.), they make me feel better. The feeling is usually not short lived; it goes on for days.

Elizabeth Scott concludes her blog with these comments.

“If you talk to people who run nonprofits or solicit charity, they say that if you’re feeling depressed in your life, you should get out there and do something to support others,” asserts Dr. Bill Harbaugh, one of the researchers involved with the study. “We find evidence of this with our study.”

This supports what I’ve found in my own life, and have often recommended to others; that is, helping others helps us feel happier with ourselves and in our lives, providing resilience against emotional stress. Making a vow to do something for someone else on a frequent basis will, in essence, change your life. Even if you still face troubles, disappointments and anxiety, outward-facing efforts will help make these things seem different. From my experience, the difference is the filter of altruism.

None of us has gotten where we are solely by pulling ourselves up from our own bootstraps. We got here because somebody bent down and helped us.  – Thurgood Marshall

In the website learningtogive.org there are many examples of practical altruism. Considering this writing on the way altruism is profound in the world of education.

Altruism in the Teaching Profession

Teachers have a ready-made laboratory surrounding them every day that is helpful in understanding the concept of altruism. Altruism and its motives seem to permeate the teaching profession itself. There are countless reports of teachers making significant sacrifices for the interest of their students. There are stories about teachers working after-school hours to tutor struggling students, providing advice or even comfort to students in challenging situations, and willing to do these things despite a low standard wage.

Norma Mateer addresses the question of how large a role altruism plays in the lives of teachers. Her study focused solely on elementary school teachers, but it is realistic to conclude that it can be conditionally applied to other levels. Mateer identified three characteristics that are signs of altruistic behavior and measured the importance of these three characteristics in teachers. The three areas are: perceiving the need of another person, being motivated by empathy to address the need, and addressing the need without an expected reward. From a series of qualitative interviews, Mateer concluded that the teachers she studied were overwhelmingly concerned with the needs of their students, and they were willing to address these needs, being focused on intrinsic rewards, not material extrinsic rewards. To current teachers this conclusion provides little surprise. Teachers usually pride themselves on being concerned with their students’ interests, even to the detriment of their own interests at times.

Kindness and compassion are cousins of altruism. These words paint a wonderful backdrop to the conclusion of this article. How we live our lives is painted one choice or one “brush stroke” at a time. Words like sympathy, gentleness, kindheartedness, benevolence, thoughtfulness, humanity, consideration and helpfulness all depict the colors of this beautiful life-portrait. Add in the highlights and shading of empathy,  concern and care and a person can artistically  live  a  life  about  others.  I’m not sure what your town or city may offer or need, but certainly your world would be a better place if you lived altruistically.

What goals could you set to transform your lifestyle into one of altruism? What simple life-changes could you make to begin a journey on which you consider others more than yourself? Are there personal foundational routines that may need to be broken to better achieve a breakthrough in this newfound lifestyle of altruism? Who could best become your accountability partner to start this new lifestyle? The answers to these questions will get you started today.


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