What drives people to be good? Learn about altruism, what it is and how to incorporate it into your life.
For the most part, we all try to be “good” people. We try to keep in touch with our friends and family and tend to look out for each other in the ways we can. Whether it be something as simple as helping an elderly person cross the road or as dramatic as trying to pull someone out of a car wreck, people have a habit of wanting to help one another.
However, we know that not all people are good or at least don’t make good choices all the time. So why do people perform great displays of compassion, kind-heartedness, and benevolence? Perhaps more importantly, what drives them to such acts – selflessness or other reasons motivated by darker self-interests?
To start, what do we mean when we say altruism? The term “altruism” was popularized as the opposite of egoism by the French philosopher Auguste Comte (Etymology Dictionary). Altruisme, as it is called in French, was derived from the Latin alteri which means “somebody else” or “other people” (Ciciloni, 1825). This makes sense when we look at the definition of altruism—it is defined generally as the action of acting for the benefit of others—an unselfish concern for other people (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Basically, altruism is helping out others with no expectation to get anything out of it
Psychological altruism is believed to be primarily related to the empathetic desire to help people who are suffering. People have studied altruism from a psychological perspective, trying to find out why a person acts without motives of self-interest.
Here are a couple theories that psychologists have:
Altruism from an anthropological point of view is the moral notion that we help each other due to our inherent need for cooperation for social welfare (Cortes & Dweck, 2014). For example, when you give up your seat on a bus for an elderly person, you do so because it is in the interest of social and moral well-being.
Other scientists try to see how altruism originates in our brains. Researchers have shown that our brains can actually develop in a certain way to be more altruistic than others (Klimecki et al., 2014). More altruistic people are able to recognize fear easily in others and are better able to detect when someone is in danger.
This is due to the brain region called the amygdala (also known as the emotional center of our brain) that activates our expressions of fear and thus we can act to protect or help others who feel fear. We all have the hardware to help others but whether we develop it is another story.
Altruism can benefit us in a variety of ways:
How to Be More Altruistic
Here are some tips to help you be more altruistic:
Final Thoughts on Altruism
There is no one way to be altruistic – it can be anything from supporting our family to helping complete strangers. Or it can be anything from helping someone cross the road to pulling someone out of a fire – these are all ways to help others with little to no self-benefit.
Pamela (Pami) Parker currently serves as a holistic practitioner, coach and teacher. Her intention is to be a compassionate guide to those who choose to experience a healthier, happier and more peaceful way of life.