To be altruistic, you puts one’s concern for the welfare of others above other considerations—including yourself. The opposite of this is selfishness.
Altruism is a good thing, for lots of reasons (unless it is taken to pathological extremes like codependency). It’s good for the recipient of the altruistic act, but it’s good for the person who practices it, too.
Being altruistic is an easy way to feel greater happiness.
In fact, altruism may be the surest path to feeling better when you are feeling low. If you can’t be a kind person for any other reason, you might some “selfish altruism” and be kind as a way of boosting your own spirits.
I got this advice myself at a very low point in my life. Every part of it—my career, my marriage, my health, my finances—was in a shambles. I felt terrible. But it gave me the gift of desperation, and I was open to taking some advice. Including this:
“If you are feeling bad, go find someone to help.”
It seemed ridiculous at the time. If you are feeling bad now, it probably seems ridiculous to you, too.
The thing is, when I tried it, it worked. With the simplest of actions. Making coffee for a meeting. Picking up the phone to call someone who was going through a tough time themselves. Giving someone without a car a ride. Saying “yes” when someone asked me for help.
A funny thing happened when I began to take this kind of advice.
I’ll never forget the day when I was driving away from the ranch where I lived. The rains had cleared the air, leaving colors saturated and trees sparkling. A feeling nagged at me, and I became conscious that I was feeling guilty about something.
I asked myself what I felt guilty about, and the answer surprised me.
I was feeling guilty for feeling happy.
It was such an unusual feeling, it felt like something must be wrong with it.
I’m glad I came to my senses about that.
And now, when I read some of the emerging science about addictions, the strange advice to be altruistic as a way to feel happier makes a lot of sense.
The engine behind addictive behavior?
Isolation can turn us into neurotic addicts. The classic addiction experiment story goes like this: put a rat in a cage and give it two water bottles, one laced with an addictive substance. Soon the rat is emptying the doped water bottle. Because the substance is irresistible. Right? Right. War on drugs!
But what if you do the same experiment with a group of rats, and give them a nice rat environment to live in all together—call it “Rat Park” maybe. Guess what?
That doped water is no longer irresistible. In fact, it’s not even preferred. The rats drink the plain water and go on with their social rat lives.
“Rat Park” was a ground-breaking study by Bruce Alexander which has become a foundation for new understanding of social isolation as a primary driver of addiction.
Other studies point to isolation as a health risk beyond addiction. Social isolation, loneliness, and living alone are associated with a higher risk—up to almost a third!—of early mortality.
Having a sense of connection to the people around us makes us healthier and more resistant. Altruistic acts are a way for us build these connections.
And everyone has some capacity for altruism, even if it’s something seemingly as small as paying someone a compliment.
Making altruism part of your daily habits is a way to strengthen your feeling of connection with others. It works because we are social animals who are wired to function better in community rather than in isolation.
It works even if you don’t believe in it.
Here’s what my experience is like: when I make a conscious effort to be kind to someone—not because I’m obligated to, or because they’ll do something nice in return, or even because I feel it’s the right thing to do—but simply to be kind, there’s some magic that can happen.
- The other person might smile at me. That simple thing gives me a good feeling.
- I feel a little more empowered, because I’ve taken an action under my own terms. Even something as simple as holding a door open for someone can give me a sense of agency. Even if a terrible day leaves me feeling powerless.
- I feel better about myself because I’m contributing something positive to life.
- I might even experience “the helper’s high” — a real physical state associated with lower stress hormones, increased antibodies associated with improved immunity, and higher levels of oxytocin.
- I feel a greater connection to life around me. I’m living a little more in LIFE, and a little less in my own head—a dangerous neighborhood that I’m better off avoiding!
- I’m able to reconnect to gratitude, because I become more aware of how much I have and how fortunate I am in many ways.
None of this makes me into a better person (that’s a value judgement I have no use for) — but it almost always makes me feel like a better person. And even if I can’t quite get there, then at least I don’t feel like a total waste.
The brain chemistry is on my side, even if my rational brain isn’t helping me out much.
I feel happier.
And, just maybe, those small acts brighten the lives of people around me just a little.
Now that’s a win-win.