Altruism – Why it’s so good to do good

“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr
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It’s true that we are hard-wired toward negativity, that we have a ‘built-in negativity bias.’ Rick Hanson explains that as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots. That’s because — in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived — if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick — a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species — then there may be no more chances to pass on their genes.

However, studies have also shown that we are hard-wired for empathy and altruism as well. This is because cooperative behaviour worked on our behalf and helped our ancestors to survive under harsh conditions. So we reap psychological and physiological benefits when we practice altruism, when we do good things for others. In other words, doing good is good for you.

First of all, what exactly is altruism? It is defined as:

A voluntary, sometimes costly behaviour motivated by the desire to help another individual; a selfless act intended to benefit only the other.

So why would we do something that is of no benefit to ourselves?

Karen Salmansohn explains it like this:

Altruism raises your mood because it raises your self-esteem, which increases happiness. Plus, giving to others gets you outside of yourself and distracts you from your problems.

Here are a few good reasons to practice altruism:

It promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness

Giving to and helping other people releases endorphins, which then activate parts of our brain that are associated with trust, pleasure and social connection. This chemical reaction in the brain increases the chance that we will be altruistic and do good deeds in the future, thus creating a positive feedback loop of generosity and happiness.

It brings a sense of belonging and reduces isolation

Being a part of a positive charitable social network leads to feelings of belonging and lessens isolation.

It helps to keep things in perspective

Helping others, especially those who are less fortunate, can provide a sense of perspective, enabling us to stop focusing on what we may feel is missing in our own life.

It reduces stress and improves our health

Evidence suggests that helping others can boost our health. Compassion has been shown to help stabilise the immune system against immunosuppressing effects of stress. Altruistic acts may also stimulate the brain to release endorphins, which are powerful natural painkillers. One study found that participating in charitable activities can be better for our health than lowering cholesterol or stopping smoking

It helps reduce negative feelings

People who are altruistic tend to see life as more meaningful. Altruism is associated with better marital relationships, increased physical health, and enhanced self-esteem. Acts of altruism decrease feelings of hopelessness and decrease depression. It may also neutralise negative emotions that affect immune, endocrine and cardiovascular function.

It may actually help us live longer

Helping others has actually been shown to increase our life span. Studies on older people show that those who give support to others live longer than those who don’t.

Quite simply, altruism feels good and is good for you. When you help others, it promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness. So although it is true that we are hard-wired to notice the negative, we are also hard-wired toward compassion and altruism. So the next time you have a choice between acting from fear or acting from caring and compassion, choose the latter, it’s better for you in every way.

I’ll close with a wonderful TED Talk by Abigail Marsh entitled: Why Some People Are More Altruistic Than Others.

I’d love to hear about how you practice Altruism.
And as always, thank you for taking the time to visit. I appreciate it.

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Insights from 2014

Our mind is capable of passing beyond the dividing line we have drawn for it.
Beyond the pairs of opposites of which the world consists, other, new insights begin.

– Hermann Hesse


One of the things I love about starting a new year is making intentions. One of the intentions I usually make is to pay better attention. Which means that for the first few weeks of the year anyway, I’m paying closer attention to life, being more mindful in what I do. Wish it lasted longer than just a few weeks, but baby steps, right?

And along with intentions for the year to come, I love to look back on the past year and see what insights I’ve gained. One of my insights from 2014 is that I always feel better, more connected when I’m paying closer attention to the present moment. Another insight from this year is how much better I feel – body, mind and spirit – when I’m alcohol free.  So once again, I’ve decided to abstain from any alcohol for awhile.  This is not a new behaviour for me. Alcohol and I have quite a history. This isn’t a typical ‘New Year’s Resolution’ – this has been coming for quite awhile, I’ve been alcohol free for several months now. It just feels like alcohol doesn’t fit within the context of who I’m becoming.

I like reading the articles that come out in the new year about the ‘bests’ of the year that has passed.  And I love learning about other people’s insights from the previous year. So it’s no surpise that my favorite article is from The Greater Good Website.  Not only do I love that site! But the article combines those two things, the best of and insights gleaned. The article is based on the annual list of the top scientific insights produced by the study of happiness, altruism, mindfulness, gratitude – the science of a meaningful life. The article –  The Top 10 Insights from Science of a Meaningful Life in 2014  – is wonderful. It’s well worth reading the whole article, but for those of you who like things put in a nutshell, here you go:

  1. Mindfulness can reduce racial prejudice—and possibly its effects on victims.
  2. Gratitude makes us smarter in how we spend money. (Makes us better in all we do!)
  3. It’s possible to teach gratitude to young children, with lasting effects. (see the video within the article on the GG website)
  4. Having more variety in our emotions—positive or negative—can make us happier and healthier.
  5. Natural selection favors happy people, which is why there are so many of them. (So Be Happy!)
  6. Activities from positive psychology don’t just make happy people happier—they can also help alleviate suffering.
  7. People with a “growth mindset” are more likely to overcome barriers to empathy.
  8. To get people to take action against climate change, talk to them about birds.
  9. Feelings of well-being might spur extraordinary acts of altruism
  10. Extreme altruism is motivated by intuition—our compassionate instincts.

Each of these points is explained in depth in the article and is based on studies done in 2014.  As I said, well worth a read, helping us all work toward leading a more Meaningful Life.

I’ll close with a lovely short video about gratitude –

The Science of Happiness – An Experiment in Gratitude

 

 

I’d love to hear about your insights from 2014. Or some of your intentions for 2015.

And as always thanks for taking the time to visit, I appreciate it.