We all know we should be altruistic, and many of us are. But do we truly understand why? When I’m altruistic, it’s good for others. I’m helping someone in some way, giving my own money, time, or energy to another when I could be using it for myself. It’s a nice thing to do, but what do I get out of it? Well, it turns out that I’m the winner when it comes to being altruistic because there are a whole lot of benefits.
Altruism: the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism)
I recently penned (or tapped) an article on the psychological concept of “flow” espoused in the book of the same name by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. One of the parameters always reported by people in “flow” (or the “zone,” as athletes term it) is a loss of consciousness of self.
They “lose” themselves to the goal in such a way that they will even sacrifice their own resources in exchange for the mission’s success.
Csikszentmihalyi identified 10 components of “flow.” One can be in a microstate of flow with only a couple of those components in play, or totally engrossed with all 10.
• Clear goals: Expectations and rules are discernible, and goals are attainable and align with one’s skill set and abilities.
• Concentration: The activity involves a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention.
• A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness: Action and awareness merge.
• Distorted sense of time: One’s subjective experience of time is altered.
• Direct and immediate feedback: Successes and failures are apparent, so behavior can be adjusted as needed.
• Balance between ability level and challenge: The activity is neither too easy nor too difficult. The challenge level and skill level should both be high.
• Control: One needs to have a sense of personal control over the situation.
• Intrinsic reward: The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so action is effortless.
• Lack of physical awareness: During the activity, one loses awareness of bodily needs.
• Absorption: Awareness narrows down to the activity itself.
What’s this got to do with altruism?
In his February 2014 Forbes article, Steven Kotler noted that, along with risk and athletic supremacy, altruism can be an on-ramp to a flow state. In the 1990s, Big Brother/Big Sister founder Allan Luks discovered there’s an altruism-backed flow state called “Helper’s High.” Perhaps you’ve felt this before as well.
So it appears that being altruistic can help us get into a state of flow. Are there other reasons for me to practice altruism?
Stress management expert Elizabeth Scott, MS, has proved that altruistic acts are good for my emotional well-being and can contribute to my peace of mind. Further, her research points to some very concrete benefits in increased social support. When people make altruistic personal sacrifices, they end up reaping what they sow in the form of favors from others.
Altruism can also help me keep a clear perspective. Helping others less fortunate can often remind me how blessed I actually am.
Scientifically, studies have shown that the act of giving can activate the area of the brain associated with positive feelings, lifting my spirits, and the more I give, the better I feel. Stress buster!
And then there’s the “karma” factor. Everything around me seems to improve—my community, my family, my co-workers—when I let go of my “self” and my “needs” and reach out to aid another without regard to the money, time, or energy it costs.
Check out this list of benefits of altruism from the U.K. Mental Health Foundation:
• It promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness.
• It brings a sense of belonging and reduces isolation.
• It helps you keep things in perspective.
• An act of kindness can improve confidence, control, happiness, and optimism.
• The more you do for others, the more you do for yourself.
• It reduces stress.
• It helps get rid of negative feelings.
• It can help us live longer.
So not only can altruism be an on-ramp to incredible improvements in performance by augmenting states of “flow,” but it can also improve my relationships, lower stress and improve my well-being, contribute to positive karma, and help me live longer.
Yeah. With that laundry list, why wouldn’t I want to be altruistic?
I think I’ll go out and shovel my neighbor’s driveway. Seriously.