Friendship and love · Life and other catastrophes · Psychology and mental health · The way we are

Does altruism really exist?

I’m intrigued by the word ‘altruism’. It carries so much weight.

AboutPsychology.com says altruism involves unselfish concern for other people. It’s about “doing things simply out of a desire to help – not because you feel obligated to out of duty, loyalty, or religious reasons,” the site reads.

That statement brings up lots of questions for me. What truly motivates a person to help others? Is complete altruism possible? That is, can any of us truly help someone without any sense of duty, desire for praise, guilt, or selfish ambition?

Every day we have the power to choose small altruistic actions, from opening the door for a friend to helping an elderly woman with her trolley.

altru

More heroic acts of altruism might involve diving into the ocean to save a drowning child or giving a charity a large sum of money.

Psychologists call it ‘prosocial behavior’. This refers to any action that benefits other people, no matter what the motive or how the giver benefits from the action.

So does motive matter? Someone might begrudgingly help a lady across the street, without her noticing the spirit behind it. Does this undo the intrinsic ‘goodness’ of the act?

It’s been proven that altruism activates reward centres in the brain. Neurobiologists have found that when engaged in an altruistic act, the pleasure centres of the brain become active. So, even if we start off feeling resentful of a kind act, we might find it turns into enjoyment – thus making it an almost addictive behaviour.

Sometimes people who experience great tragedy make the difficult decision to keep engaging with their community and the needs of others during their grief. Selfless acts, no matter what season of life we’re in, won’t solve our problems – but might just keep us going emotionally.

No-one will ever know if ‘true altruism’ exists, but we do know that unselfish acts can bring a deep joy that superficial ‘solutions’ fail to provide. And in loving others, we reflect the love of Jesus – the one whose motives are always pure, right, and just.

May we keep learning to love like he loves.

“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13 NLT)

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18 thoughts on “Does altruism really exist?

  1. Interesting question. I think true altruism does exist, but that it’s more comment to help out of duty (no one wants to look like a big jerk in front of everyone else… okay, maybe some people don’t mind that!) I’m wondering if even helping out of duty might lead to true altruism because of the rush we feel when we do good?

    1. Haha.
      Yes I think that can be the case. When we realise its ‘happiness benefits’ we might become intrinsically motivated to serve. In a sense, it becomes a ‘win-win’…

  2. I never really thought about altruism or knew what it really meant! I’m getting me some lessons here today. ๐Ÿ™‚ Praying though for a heart that is true and pure motives as I go about today helping those around me as best I can! God bless you, Ali, and all He is doing through you!

    1. Yes I enjoyed unpacking its meaning too ๐Ÿ™‚ Thank you dear Debbie, and may you enjoy all the opportunities this week to give and receive His love. Blessings,
      Ali

  3. Speaking from my own experience, I know I get a physical/mental/emotional/spiritual RUSH or HIGH when I give away my cooking/baking efforts to someone. I may not get any reward, even of thanks–yet, it transforms me for that day; very addictive! And I so agree that if we can keep “doing” in difficult times, it truly helps us “keep going”–very important. Cooking and baking is the best thing I can do when I just can’t deal with life. God bless you BIG today–praying for your little family.

    1. I think that sounds wonderful and healthy, Caddo! It’s a win-win because you get to show love and nurture others with your food, while boosting your own mood and wellbeing. Great example, and obviously a way Jesus is using you to reach others.
      PS Food is very powerful. I love cooking for others too, and receiving something home-cooked makes me feel a million dollars ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Very evocative question. As long as it sparks a warmth within oneself without harming oneself, I would give a nod to altruism. But at the cost of self-sacrifice…I would rather follow Ayn Rand.

    1. Thanks for reading Sweety. Eloquently put.
      Jesus is definitely the model figure when it comes to altruism involving self-sacrifice. To me, giving your life for another is the ultimate expression of love – it demonstrates that even your life matters less than the purpose for which you die (i.e. saving someone else’s life). In Jesus’ case, his death and resurrection from the grave showed he was truly God and his actions worked to redeem us from our sin. He was the ultimate life raft, and it’s utterly incredible to me that the son of God would come to earth to do this to guarantee us eternal life.
      I had a look into some of Rand’s ideas and she seems an inspirational person.
      I’m not sure I agree with her statement – “Follow reason – not whims or faith.” I would argue, given what evidence we do have, that faith does involve reason, and the life of Jesus, and his resurrection from the dead, can be proven through historical evidence.
      I’m also curious about her idea of “pursuing your own happiness as your highest moral aim”…
      There is a lovely concept called ‘Christian hedonism’ (see John Piper’s teachings) which describe the pursuit of our own happiness as actually being centred around the magnificence and glory of God. Yes, by engaging in a relationship with him, we are pursuing our own happiness in a sense, but its happiness that delights in someone perfect, and glorious, and who has our lives in his hands. I think we all, by nature, crave to worship something/ someone greater than ourselves. And when we truly discover Him and his unending love and unconditional redemption, the happiness of our own making pales in comparison.
      To me, my highest ‘moral aim’ is to see others enjoy the magnificence of the God who created us and has a plan for us even beyond the grave.
      Just some thoughts I had – thanks for putting me on to Ayn Rand.

  5. I know that positive/feel-good feeling you get when you help or support another. I didn’t realise that it was actually a bodily response, wow. For me though I always have to watch my motivation. Jesus was able to be truly altruistic because who he was doing it for, not for himself, but for God. His mind was focused on His purpose, ie doing His father’s will. He also had a good understanding of rest, He knew when to stop. Sometimes we burn out doing good for others, because we don’t know when to stop. Particularly if we are doing good to satisfy our need to be needed. Our neediness can never be satisfied this way, and the good works/needs are plentiful. It is very hard with this mindset to know when to stop. When we work like Jesus out of a heart that is already satisfied then our motivation (and the result) is different.

    1. Very insightful – yes, totally agree that feeding the ‘need to be needed’ can become addictive and destructive to ourselves and others.
      Yes… We love because we’ve been loved, not so that we can gain approval/ affirmation from others. It can be easy to use others for our own gratification in a sense, rather than loving because we choose to, and because we are also free to choose not to help.
      So thankful for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we ask him how to help others effectively, and look after ourselves as well.

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