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Altruism and happiness

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Helping others and the link between altruism and happiness

Have you ever wondered what altruism means? Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for the happiness of other human beings or other animals, resulting in a quality of life, both material and spiritual. Essentially by caring for others, it benefits your own wellbeing.

There is a Chinese saying that states: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” This explains what altruism means perfectly – happiness is found in helping others.

The scientific link between altruism and happiness

Science has validated the concept that altruism and happiness are directly related. The embodiment of altruism, compassion, empathy, helpfulness and a desire to take care of others is associated with greater wellbeing, health and longer lives. When we embody compassion, both emotionally and behaviourally, we are also acting for our own good, as long as we are not overwhelmed with the helping tasks.1

Researchers assessed a group of people who had experienced stressful events during a period of one year and determined whether or not they had also provided tangible assistance to friends or family members. They concluded that the people who had given their time and talents to help others were significantly less likely to die during the course of the study.2

What is it about living an altruistic life that creates these benefits?

Several factors may be responsible. To start with, the positive feeling one often receives after helping someone in need is caused by endorphins, and possibly endocannabinoids as well. These are the same feel-good chemicals released during exercise that the body rewards us with when we are taking care of ourselves (or in this case, taking care of others).

Helping others often reminds us to be grateful for what we have. In a time when so many of us are constantly striving to acquire more possessions and comparing what we have to what others have, cultivating gratitude can be extremely rewarding. It helps us let go of desires and more freely live in the moment with what we have—and be happy with that!

Helping others distracts from our own problems

Focusing on doing good for someone else can break negative thought cycles and preoccupations with our own worries. Studies have shown that people with medical conditions reduce their own distress and disability when they counsel others about the same conditions.3

The happiness derived from compassionate living and helping others is a very specific kind of happiness. Revolutionary research from UCLA and the University of North Carolina demonstrates this. Scientists looked at the link between happiness and inflammation which is suspected to be at the root of cancer and other chronic non- infectious diseases. Inflammation is often higher in people who live with high levels of stress. Because stress and inflammation are connected, you might expect those who report they live a “happy” life would experience less inflammation. Not true!

Amazingly, the researchers found that if a person’s happiness was derived from a life of pleasure (also known as “hedonic happiness”), that person still had high inflammation. However when a person’s happiness stemmed from an altruistic life of purpose (also known as “eudemonic happiness”), low levels of inflammation were recorded.4

Altruism without the guilt factor

We sometimes need to be reminded that it is okay to feel good about helping others, rather than believe we are only doing it for selfish reasons. You are making a difference in somebody’s life. That is wonderful and you should allow yourself to embrace that feeling without guilt.

The benefits of altruism and happiness go hand in hand. Both will help you fill your life with more wonderful, positive experiences and feelings.

Research suggests that we are born with an innate desire to help others. Embrace it! Scientists at the University of British Columbia found that children as young as two years old benefit from altruism. When tasked with giving treats to other toddlers, those who gave the treats experienced a greater level of happiness than those who received the treats.5

This is proof that we are hardwired to be helpful, and there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure from that. Know that you are a good person and you are not helping others for selfish reasons. Feeling good about the action is just a perk.

  1. Post SG. Altruism, happiness, and health: it’s good to be good. Int J Behav Med. 2005;12(2):66-77. []
  2. Poulin, Michael J. et al. Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality. American Journal of Public Health 103.9 (2013): 1649–1655. []
  3. Carter, Sherrie Bourg. Helper’s High: The Benefits (and Risks) of Altruism. Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 04 Sept. 2014. Web. 13 July 2017. []
  4. Fredrickson, Barbara L. et al. A Functional Genomic Perspective on Human Well-Being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110.33 (2013): 13684–13689. PMC. Web. 13 Aug. 2017. []
  5. Aknin LB, Hamlin JK, Dunn EW. Giving Leads to Happiness in Young Children. PLOS ONE 7(6): e39211. []