What Is Altruism?

Updated November 3, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The dictionary definition of altruism is “the belief in or practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others.” It’s about doing kind things for people out of empathy and compassion, whether it’s a random, unplanned act or an organized volunteer opportunity.

The beautiful thing about altruism is that it can benefit both the giver and the receiver.

Examples Of Altruistic Behavior

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Altruism can take many different forms. It could be emotional, like offering support, advice, or forgiveness. It could be physical, like holding a door or helping someone with a project. It could be financial, like donating money, or time-based, like volunteering. It’s any act that you perform out of selflessness, without expecting reciprocity. Some examples might include:

  • Returning a lost wallet you found
  • Helping a parent carry their stroller up or down the stairs
  • Paying for the coffee of the person in line behind you at the café
  • Donating money to a cause that’s meaningful to you
  • Regularly calling an isolated relative just to chat
  • Offering helpful advice to a friend
  • Advocating for beneficial political change
  • Volunteering for a nonprofit organization

When thinking about altruistic acts you can do in your day-to-day life, think about the situations you regularly find yourself in as well as the strengths, passions, or resources you have. For instance, if you have an elderly neighbor and some DIY knowledge, offering to help them with a task or two around the house would be altruistic. If you’re good with words, you could post a poem or words of encouragement on the front door of your apartment building, or put them in a card to send to a friend or relative out of the blue. If you have a car and some free time, you could volunteer for a charity that delivers meals to the elderly or to those experiencing homelessness. The way you contribute altruistically to this world can be as unique as you are.

The Benefits Of Altruism

Altruism benefits the recipient of the kindness, of course—but it can benefit you as the giver, too. Altruism is selfless by definition, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy the boost you may get from performing these kind acts. Making altruism a part of your approach to life can have these positive effects for you.

A Kinder Place To Live

Kind acts can have the power to multiply. If you’re regularly practicing altruism in your family, your neighborhood, your school or workplace, or your community, you can help make these all better places for everyone because you may spur additional acts of altruism. There may even be scientific evidence for this. One paper reports that giving “now” is associated with a 66–200% increase in the probability of giving “later”. Altruism can beget altruism, in other words, because your kind acts can inspire others to do some of their own.

An Improved Ability To Handle Stress

Altruistic acts impact the region of the brain that deals with pleasure and reward, which is why doing something kind for someone else often feels so good.

Research shows that positive emotions like these can be powerful, as they’re “vehicles for individual growth and social connection.” Since other studies suggest that people with a more positive affect may be better able to cope with stress, it can be inferred that regular altruism may improve your ability to handle stressful experiences in life.

A Longer Life

Altruism doesn’t always take the form of volunteering for an organization. It can be a powerful act of kindness to provide social and emotional support to people in your life in the form of companionship, advice, or even a listening ear. One five-year study looked at the relationship between providing social support and longevity and found there to be a correlation. Those individuals who reported providing “instrumental support” to friends, relatives, neighbors, and/or spouses had lower rates of mortality after five years than those who hadn’t reported providing this type of support. Perhaps even more interestingly, providing support had a stronger relationship with longevity than receiving support from others. So if altruism in this form is what you do best, you could potentially experience significant benefits from doing so regularly!

Improved Mental And Physical Health

Research has identified the health benefits of volunteering time and again, including one study that found it to be “significantly related to better health outcomes” in the form of improved mental health, physical health, social well-being, and life satisfaction. This may be because volunteering gives people a sense of purpose and accomplishment and exposes them to new social circles. All of these may be linked to mental health, which plentiful research has shown is connected to physical health. The effects of this form of altruism—and likely others that have not specifically been studied yet—are so powerful, that the study referenced earlier even suggests that “Volunteering should be promoted by public health, education, and policy practitioners as a kind of healthy lifestyle.”

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Other Ways To Improve Your Mental Health

Maintaining good physical health doesn’t happen through any one practice. Diet, exercise, and sleep are just a few key components, and there are many different ways to approach all of these healthfully. Plus, different approaches work for different people. The situation is the same when it comes to mental health. There’s a wide variety of strategies you can try to improve or maintain your mental health over time. Altruism is one that can help both you and those around you, so it’s worth practicing for most of us. Therapy is another example of a practice that many people pursue to improve or maintain their mental health. A therapist can provide support for many of life’s challenges, from mental health conditions like depression and anxiety to navigating relationship conflicts, major life changes, low self-esteem, and many other situations.

Some people who seek therapy find that having virtual sessions from their home is the most comfortable format for them. One study even found that therapy participants who met with their counselor online were able to form more personal connections with them compared to those who had in-person sessions. An online therapy service like BetterHelp can match you with a therapist who you can meet with virtually, if that’s your preference. That said, meeting with a licensed counselor in whatever format works best for you will be the most effective for the challenges you may be facing.

Takeaway

Regularly practicing altruism can benefit you and those around you. Not only can it give you a sense of accomplishment and happiness, but it may improve your physical health, mental health, and even your longevity. If you’re looking for another way to support your mental health, you might consider seeking the guidance of a therapist.

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