One of the biggest questions that philosophers, psychologists, and other scientific thinkers have been reflecting on is the question of doing good–altruism.
What does it mean to be altruistic?
Usually, it is defined as “self-sacrifice” or “giving to others regardless of the personal consequences”. Giving can take many forms, especially among humans: we give gifts, our time, resources, support, emotions, etc.
But what if we do good things for others knowing that we’ll reap some benefits for ourselves? Is that still altruism? This is what many researchers and thinkers have been debating over for centuries now. Does a selfless altruistic act even exist? Or is it always motivated by personal gains?
If we view altruism as laughter, we can say that we often laugh to make other people feel good, but we also do it because we enjoy laughing, or because we have an interest in the other person liking us. It’s difficult to untangle these motivations.
Similar to laughter, acts of kindness mean a lot to other people, but to us, too. Selfless giving is considered a high virtue, but this very consideration is what makes its altruism questionable: Are we doing it for the sake of being awarded as virtuous, or because we truly want to give?
And while these are great questions for exercising our thought processes and introspecting our motivation, we can also ask ourselves:
Are the answers ultimately important?
Or is the result more important: us feeling well, meaningful, connected to the people around us, and others feeling noticed, taken care of, and important?
It’s on each one of us to answer these questions. In the meantime, we’ll list some of the most important aspects and consequences of giving.
Hint: they’re all positive.
Giving supports our health
There are many studies, especially since the rise of positive psychology that consider the relationship between kindness, positivity, giving, and other similar positive practices and human health.
Physical health and giving
Did you know that kind, giving people tend to live longer and healthier lives? They report fewer symptoms of pain and aches. Studies have shown that volunteering is more important in lowering your likelihood of dying than exercising four times a week–almost as important as quitting smoking.
In his book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People, preventative medicine professor Stephen Post reported that giving to others can increase the immune system response among people with a chronic illness.
Mental health and giving
Acts of giving and kindness also play a preventative role when it comes to our mental health. Such acts stimulate the reward (dopamine and endorphin) in brain areas and thus make us feel good and positive. This makes an impact on our cognition, emotions, and psyche, and increases our perceived self-value, confidence, and self-worth. This way we prevent ourselves from falling victim to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
How is this possible? Why is the act of giving so beneficial for our overall physical wellbeing?
The most probable hypothesis is that volunteering, kindness to others, giving, and other altruistic acts lower our perceived stress and the intensity of our stress response. This way, instead of excreting “bad” neurotransmitters and hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that alert our organism and harm our health, we are much more in balance with our entire being.
Helping others makes us feel good, and we can feel it both physically and mentally: people reported feeling more energetic, less depressed, and more self-worthy. It’s like helping others has the potential to trigger euphoria.
Giving makes us happy
Besides giving us energy and making us more energetic and healthy, giving ultimately makes us happy. We’ve mentioned already how volunteer work and kindness can lower symptoms of depression and make us “high” on dopamine and endorphins.
This all means that giving is a much more important element of happiness than receiving.
Being able to give makes us feel like we’re making a big impact on someone’s life, encouraging us to do more good and uncover a different perspective of happiness. In support, studies detect a clear correlation between volunteering and happiness. Teenagers who are motivated to help others feel much happier, more excited, engaged, involved, and active compared to their peers who are not motivated by altruism. They are also more socially intelligent and confident.
Giving promotes positive values
Giving inspires further giving. This is just one of the many positive values that the act of giving instills. Apart from feeling grateful for being important to someone, the receivers very often also become inspired and wish to become givers themselves.
Furthermore, if you give to others, you are more likely to be rewarded, and receive something in return, either from the same person or someone else. Such exchanges represent the base for other positive emotions and values, such as trust, cooperation, intimacy, and life satisfaction. Giving also strengthens positive relationships and collaboration not only between two individuals, but within a social community as well.
Buildings or neighborhoods in which all neighbors know each other, have mutual community activities, and help each other (helping the elderly, watching each other’s children, exchanging/borrowing things, etc.) tend to have less crime, disputes, and be more satisfied in life.
Giving and gratitude
It’s quite unexpected how giving evokes gratitude on both ends: both the giver and the receiver can feel grateful in the act. The giver might be expressing their gratitude for something, and at the same time make the receiver feel grateful as well.
So far, research has revealed that gratitude plays an important part in our happiness, health, social relationships, and overall wellbeing. It’s another mediator to perceived stress that makes us more resilient and optimistic when life gets hard.
By giving to others, you pass the beautiful feeling of gratitude on. Once you feel grateful for what you have now, or what you have received, you’ll most likely wish to spread appreciation and joy around.
How important is giving to you? Are you a giver or a receiver? Do you notice that you receive more when you feel and act in a giving way? Do you think that’s a coincidence or is there an explanation?
There are so many things to be gifted: objects, love, patience, attention, time, advice, forgiveness, presence. A gift is the most beautiful way to thank someone, apologize, show how we feel, or make friends with someone.
Giving is an act of art because it sums up the most beautiful wishes, feelings, and messages. From a small act of kindness like a smile to bigger deeds like supporting a dear friend or helping a team member achieve something that’s important to them–it’s an art. Ultimately, it helps you become a better and happier person.