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Alcohol and Mental Health

What Is Altruism and How Do We Cultivate It?

September 28, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
September 28, 2023
21 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
September 28, 2023
21 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
September 28, 2023
21 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 28, 2023
21 min read

Have you ever been the recipient of a random act of kindness? Maybe someone “paid it forward” by paying for your cup of coffee at the drive-thru. Or maybe someone noticed you were running late and let you cut in line at airport security.

When someone acts altruistically toward us, it not only leads to a sense of gratitude and appreciation, but it can inspire us to do the same for others. This is one of the reasons altruism is so important — it has the potential to make the world a kinder, more compassionate place.

But how do you define altruism, exactly? And what is altruistic behavior? In this post, we’ll explore what altruism is, why it’s so beneficial, and how we can cultivate it in our daily lives. Let’s dive in!

What Is Altruism?

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The term “altruism” was popularizedin the 19th century by the French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte. “Altruisme,” as it’s called in French, was derived from the Latin “alteri” which means “somebody else” or “other people.” It was introduced as an antonym for “egoism” to refer to the totality of other-regarding instincts in humans.

Today, altruism is defined as exhibiting an unselfish concern for other people, or helping others with no expectation of getting anything in return. Altruism is the opposite of “self-interested” or “selfish” or “egotistic” — words applied to behaviors motivated by the desire to benefit ourselves. Altruism, in contrast, is motivated by the goal of increasing someone else’s welfare; it involves acting purely out of concern for the well-being of others.

What is altruistic behavior? While news stories often focus on grand gestures of altruism — such as a man who risks his life by diving into an icy river to rescue a drowning stranger — everyday life can be filled with small acts of altruism. Giving money to a local charity, volunteering at a soup kitchen, holding the door open for a stranger, and letting someone go ahead of us in line are all examples of everyday altruism.

Altruistic acts include those undertaken not only to do good for others but also to avoid or prevent harm to others. For instance, someone who drives their car extra carefully because they’re in an area where children are playing is exhibiting altruism; they’re not necessarily trying to improve those children’s lives, but they’re being careful not to cause them harm.

People are often driven to behave altruistically when they feel a desire to help others in challenging circumstances. In fact, empathy — the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person — is considered the foundation of a lot of altruistic behavior.

The Different Types of Altruism

To define altruism, we have to recognize that it comes in all different shapes and sizes, but psychologists have identified four main types:

Genetic altruism. This type of altruism involves actions that benefit close family members, such as parents or siblings. In fact, our parents often engage in altruistic acts of sacrifice as we’re growing up in order to meet our needs. Other examples of genetic altruism might include letting a loved one eat the last piece of cake when we really want it, caretaking for a relative with a chronic condition, or donating blood or an organ to a sibling.

Reciprocal altruism. Group-selected altruism. This type of altruism is based on engaging in altruistic acts that benefit certain groups, such as ethnic, social, or religious groups. For instance, this might include starting a nonprofit for a cause we care about, donating items to people at our church, or picking up trash at our neighborhood park or beach.

Group-selected altruism. This type of altruism is based on engaging in altruistic acts that benefit certain groups, such as ethnic, social, or religious groups. For instance, this might include starting a nonprofit for a cause we care about, donating items to people at our church, or picking up trash at our neighborhood park or beach.

Pure altruism. This type of altruism involves helping someone else without any expectations of reward, even when there’s a certain degree of risk involved. It’s otherwise referred to as “moral altruism,” as it involves helping someone from a place of empathy and is motivated by internalized values and morals. For instance, we might help a person using a cane cross the street, donate clothing to a charity, pay for the person behind us in a drive-thru, let someone with fewer grocery items go ahead of us, or bring a lost animal to the shelter.

Why Is Altruism Important?

Altruism offers a number of benefits, not just for ourselves but for others and the world around us. Even a small altruistic act — such as paying for a stranger’s coffee — can lead to powerful results and create a long-lasting ripple effect. Let’s take a look at five of the main benefits of altruism:

  • Better health. Research suggests that engaging in altruistic acts can actually benefit our physical health. For instance, one study found that altruism can improve our physical health by lowering our blood pressure. Another study found that regularly engaging in helping behaviors can boost our longevity. Altruistic acts have even been shown to relieve both acute physical pain among healthy adults and chronic pain among cancer patients. Research notes that altruism also can provide a buffer to chronic stress, which strains the body and the mind.
  • Enhanced mental well-being. Altruism can improve our mental health, emotional well-being, and mood. Helping others improves our feelings of confidence, self-esteem, optimism, happiness, and sense of control. In fact, research shows that the act of giving activates the area of the brain associated with positive feelings, lifting our spirits and making us feel better the more we give. Even just thinking about helping someone can light up our brain’s pleasure center. Furthermore, altruistic acts can also provide us with a sense of purpose, which is vital to our overall well-being.
  • Greater perspective. Helping others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves, can put our lives into perspective and generate a more positive outlook on our own circumstances. Research suggests that being aware of our own acts of kindness and the things we’re grateful for can increase our feelings of happiness, optimism, and satisfaction. Interestingly, one study found that spontaneous acts of kindness — such as leaving a generous tip or paying for a stranger’s coffee — contributed more to overall well-being than formal or scheduled acts like working at a clothing drive.
  • Better relationships. When it comes to the quality and success of our relationships, several studies have indicated that altruism enhances their quality. One study in particular noted that altruistic love was associated with greater happiness in marital relationships. Altruism even plays a role in attracting others, as studies show that kindness is one of the most important qualities that people across all cultures seek in a romantic partner.
  • Improved social connections. Altruism can increase our sense of community and improve our social connections. It enables us to engage with others in meaningful ways, reducing loneliness and isolation. For instance, volunteering and helping others can help us feel a sense of belonging, make new friends, and connect with our community. Acts of altruism are often contagious, encouraging others to repeat the good deed they’ve experienced or do something kind for someone else — contributing to a more positive community.

The bottom line is that the benefits of altruism are wide-ranging, impacting nearly every aspect of life, from our physical health to our social connections.

How Can We Cultivate Altruism

How Can We Cultivate Altruism?

When it comes to practicing altruism, it’s helpful to consider our strengths and passions. Research shows that we benefit most when we draw on our natural gifts to help others. People find it easier to consistently help others when they are doing things they believe they are good at. With that in mind, here are six tips for cultivating altruism and learning to flex our “helping” muscles.

1. Identify Strengths, Passions & Resources

When thinking about altruistic acts we can do in our day-to-day life, think about the situations we regularly find ourself in as well as our strengths, passions, and resources.

For instance, if we have an elderly neighbor and some DIY knowledge, offering to help them with a task or two around the house would be altruistic. If we’re good with words, we could post a poem or words of encouragement on the front door of our apartment building or put them in a card to send to a friend or relative out of the blue.

If we have a car and some free time, we could volunteer for a charity that delivers meals to the elderly or to those experiencing homelessness. The ways we contribute altruistically to this world can be as unique as we are. They can be emotional, like offering support, advice, or forgiveness. They could be physical, like holding a door or helping someone with a project. They could be financial, like donating money; or time-based, like volunteering.

2. Visualize Helping Others

One of the most effective ways to incorporate altruism into our life is through visualization. In psychology, this is called “priming,” and research suggests it’s very effective in shaping behavior. For instance, one study found that people were more willing to help someone in need after they’d been prompted to think about a caring and supportive figure in their lives. If we do a little positive mental imaging before our day begins, we will be more likely to respond helpfully to the world around us.

We can practice altruistic visualization by taking a few minutes every morning to imagine ourselves helping some of the people we’ll encounter during the day. We can also visualize opportunities to help strangers. This might include things like helping a parent carry their stroller up or down the stairs, paying for the coffee of the next person in line, bringing someone’s garbage bin up their driveway, or letting someone with fewer grocery items go ahead of us in the checkout line.

3. Practice Gratitude

When we’re grateful, we tend to be more generous. Gratitude also ties into the concept of “paying it forward” — when we appreciate what we receive and have, it encourages us to help others. Similarly, we can also consider the ways others have given to us, either currently or in the past. This may motivate us to give back to them with a simple, heartfelt “thank you” or even a letter letting them know how much they helped us. Research has found that writing a gratitude letter and delivering it in person makes people feel significantly happier for a month.

4. Practice Compassion and Empathy

Compassion and empathy play a large role in allowing us to focus on others. Research suggests that highly altruistic people are typically quite attuned to other people’s emotional states. People who are more sensitive to the way others feel are more likely to want to help them. We can enhance our compassion and empathy in a variety of ways, such as making direct eye contact when someone is talking to us, attending gatherings with diverse groups of people, or actively listening to others, especially those we disagree with.

It’s also helpful to try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and understand why they might be behaving as they are. For instance, if a coworker lashes out at us, could it be that they’re dealing with a stressful personal issue at home? As the saying goes, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

5. Offer Sincere Compliments

We all bring unique qualities to the table. Acknowledging an intrinsic part of someone’s identity, like a personality trait or an aspect of their character that we admire, might just make their day. For instance, maybe our friend is a good listener or has a particularly creative spirit. Or maybe our coworker demonstrates a disciplined work ethic, or makes us laugh with their goofy sense of humor. Regardless of what the compliment is, all it takes is a few seconds out of your day to offer one. Doing so might even increase a person’s feelings of confidence and self-worth, which can stick with them for years.

6. Aim To Help One Person Each Day

Consider setting a goal to help one person every day, even if it’s just through a small act of kindness. Author Cami Walker committed to one act a day as she was struggling with multiple sclerosis, as chronicled in her book 29 Gifts. If one a day feels too ambitious, consider starting by helping one person every week.

Whether we help by holding the door open for a stranger, paying for a coworker’s coffee, or pitching in to help with a loved one’s chores, pay attention to how it feels. Does it lead to a little boost in happiness? A slightly lighter heart? Hold onto this feeling! And then look for opportunities to recreate that sensation the following day, week, or month. Experiment and find the right dose and intensity of altruism that’s realistic and maintainable for you.

The Bottom Line

Helping others without expecting anything in return can do wonders for our physical, mental, and emotional health. Because altruism can take many different forms, there are endless ways to practice it: it’s not always about grand, sweeping gestures and extreme effort. Even just extending a friendly smile to a stranger can make someone’s day. Over time, as we reap its benefits and recognize its impact on others (and ourselves!), we’ll likely be inspired to make altruism a part of our daily lives.

If drinking alcohol is having a negative effect on the way you show up for others, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption, cultivate healthy skills, and enhance their overall well-being.

Summary FAQs

1. What is altruism?

Altruism is defined as exhibiting an unselfish concern for other people, or helping others with no expectation of getting anything in return.

2. What are the different types of altruism?

Altruism can come in different forms. The four main types of altruism include genetic, reciprocal, group-selected, and “pure” or “moral.”

3. Why is altruism so important?

Altruistic acts can set off a chain reaction that makes the world a kinder, more compassionate place. Research shows that altruism can also enhance our physical health and mental well-being, help us generate a more positive outlook, and lead to better relationships and social connections.

4. How can we cultivate altruism in our lives?

We can begin cultivating altruism by identifying our strengths and interests, as we’re more likely to help others when we do things that align with our talents. Other tips for practicing altruism include visualizing ways we can help others; practicing gratitude, compassion, and empathy; offering sincere compliments; and setting a goal to help one person every day.

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