What Is Altruism?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The definition of altruism according to the American Psychological Association (APA) is “an apparently unselfish behavior that provides benefit to others at some cost to the individual.” It’s the practice of acts of kindness and compassion simply for the sake of showing care to others, stemming from a sense of empathy. Below, you can learn more about what altruism is, the potential benefits of practicing it, and what research says about this phenomenon.

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Examples of altruism

Altruism can take virtually infinite forms. The only criteria is that it involves showing kindness to or helping someone else without expecting anything in return. An altruistic act can be organized and planned ahead of time, or it can be spur-of-the-moment when you see that someone needs assistance or support. It can be action-based, monetary, or written, in the form of material support, physical support, or emotional support. A few examples of altruism include:

  • Returning a lost wallet

  • Helping a parent carry their stroller up or down the stairs

  • Donating money to a positive cause

  • Regularly calling an isolated relative just to chat

  • Offering a listening ear to a friend or neighbor

  • Advocating for beneficial political change

  • Volunteering for a nonprofit organization

If you’re looking to practice altruism in your life, it might be helpful to think about your strengths and the opportunities around you. For instance, if you have knowledge of basic home repairs, you could offer to do a few things around the house for an elderly neighbor who lives alone. If you’re good with words, you could send a friend a thoughtful text or post an encouraging message in a public place. Each person has something they can contribute through an act of altruism.

Potential benefits of altruism

Altruism benefits the recipient of the kindness, of course, but it can benefit your welfare as the giver and your broader community, too. Take a look at some of the potential benefits that engaging in altruistic acts can produce.

An improved ability to handle stress

Altruistic acts impact the part of the brain responsible for pleasure and reward, which is why it can feel good to do something kind for someone else. 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, altruism may increase your resilience overall.

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Improved mental and physical health

Research indicates that volunteering specifically may offer some health benefits. One study suggests that it may 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 often closely connected to physical health. 

The potential effects of this form of altruism—and likely others that have not specifically been studied yet—are so powerful that the study referenced above even suggests it be more widely practiced. It recommends that “Volunteering should be promoted by public health, education, and policy practitioners as a kind of healthy lifestyle.”

A longer life

Whether starting at a young age, later in life, or over the years, altruism may help improve a person’s longevity. Remember, formally volunteering for an organization isn’t the only form of altruism; providing social and emotional support to people in your life and community via companionship, advice, or a listening ear are other powerful forms it can take. Some studies suggest that showing kindness and social support to others has a positive correlation with longevity, so offering this type of selfless support to those around you could benefit you in this way as well.

A kinder place to live

Kind acts can multiply. If you’re regularly behaving altruistically within your family, neighborhood, school or workplace, and/or community, you may help make these better places for everyone. One reason for this is that you may inspire additional acts of altruism by performing them yourself. Research indicates that this may be a scientifically verifiable phenomenon. One study reports that giving “now” is associated with a 66–200% increase in the probability of giving “later.” “Altruism begets altruism,” in other words, meaning that your kind acts can motivate others to do some of their own.

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Other ways to improve your mental health

There are a variety of strategies you can try to improve or maintain your mental health over time. Engaging in acts of kindness toward others is one such practice you might incorporate into your routine. Therapy is another example of a practice that some choose to pursue to support 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. Since research suggests that online therapy can be as effective as in-person sessions in many cases, you can feel empowered to choose whichever format feels right for you. An online therapy service like BetterHelp can match you with a therapist with whom you can meet virtually—via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging—if that’s your preference.


Altruism is the act of doing something kind or helpful for someone else at some cost to yourself and without expecting anything in return. Aside from taking care of family, friends, and neighbors, altruism may also benefit your mental health and overall well-being, from increased stress resilience to increased longevity. Meeting with a therapist is another way to improve or maintain your mental health. 

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