The altruism effect: Why the good you do is good for you

Altruism is when we act in ways that help others without expecting anything in return. Though some people assume that human beings are fundamentally self-interested, recent research suggests otherwise.

Studies have found that people’s first instinct is to cooperate rather than act selfishly. Even toddlers and non-human primates display genuine altruistic behaviour.

While you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know that doing good feels good, the extent of the altruism effect may surprise you. Numerous studies have shown that there is a very strong link between altruistic behaviour and happiness. And it offers a whole host of other mental and physical health benefits too.

In this post I’ll share the research on the altruism effect and also give you simple tips to use altruism to boost your own mental strength in daily life.

Listen to my latest podcast, or keep reading below to learn how to do more good, and what the benefits of altruism might be.

Small acts lead to big benefits

First, I’d like to start with a story. 

One morning a man was walking along the beach. There had been a big storm the night before and he saw that thousands of starfish had been washed up onto the beach. As he walked on, he saw a boy picking up and gently throwing the starfish back into the ocean.

Approaching the boy he asked, “Young man, what are you doing?”

“Throwing starfish back into the ocean. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die,” the boy replied.

The man laughed to himself and said, “Do you realise there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You can’t make any difference.”

After listening politely, the boy bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the ocean. Then, he smiled at the man and said, “I made a difference to that one.”

Sometimes we forget the fact that we have a lot of power to make a difference to the world around us. Even if that difference only affects one person, or creates good in some small way, it still matters.

It matters not only to how we affect the world around us as we act as a force for good, but to how it affects our own mental state as well. When we go about our lives looking for how we can be a blessing to the world, to others, we fill ourselves with the states of goodwill, friendliness, compassion, appreciation, and love. 

Opportunities for altruism are everywhere

We can do good in so many small and big ways throughout the day. By giving a word of encouragement or a listening ear. By showing gratitude, compassion and patience. It can take the form of giving a compliment instead of a criticism. Or an inclusion rather than a rejection. We can do good to others by truly listening to others, making time for them. And by accepting them just the way they are, instead of telling them they should change.

It can be helping someone carry a heavy item. Letting someone in in traffic. Or taking a meal to a sick neighbour or a new parent.

By caring for life we are acting altruistically. That might be expressed as putting the recycling out, reducing our consumption. Or by placing a dying starfish, or some other little creature, back into the ocean, or off the road, so that they can be safe and happy.

Altruism can be expressed in an occasional act. It can also be a general attitude of helping rather than harming. Generosity rather than greed. Understanding, benevolence and open-heartedness rather than defensiveness, judgement or ill will.

You can also be altruistic to yourself. Treating yourself with compassion, acceptance and kindness. Looking after your health and happiness as best you can while also considering the health and happiness of others.

There are so many opportunities to be altruistic. They don’t have to be heroic acts or great achievements. Most of us underestimate the power of the small kind acts we can do, and the way they are a blessing to ourselves and others. As Jane Goodall once said, “What you do makes a difference. It’s up to you each day to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Research on the benefits of altruism

Studies show that the more you do good, the better you feel. Actually, just thinking about doing something generous has real mood-boosting benefits in the brain.

Research has shown that being altruistic has some other surprising benefits. Studies have shown that people who are altruistic have better health. In fact, one study found that altruism is equally as effective at lowering blood pressure as medication or exercise. It has also been shown to reduce stress and increase life expectancy.

It turns out that you can’t really do good to others without blessing your own life. So the next time you think about buying yourself a treat to make yourself feel better, consider that the opposite is likely going to be more effective. And give you a more lasting warm and fuzzy feeling.

This week’s mental strength practice

So this week the invitation for your mental strength practice is to focus on altruism. Try to find ways to do small gestures of kindness, generosity and compassion.

And if you want to reap the full benefits in your life, repeated practice is the key to improved health, happiness and overall quality of life.

I hope you enjoy this week’s practice. Wishing you well with this and as always, thank you for your practice and your presence here with us.

Join me in Headstrong

If you’re finding these practices helpful to your life, and you’re ready to take your mental strength to the next level, I invite you to join me in Headstrong. It’s my 8-week intensive mental strength program. Headstrong offers the best of everything I’ve learned in over two decades of mental strength training and teaching. It’s designed to get rapid transformational results and arm you with powerful tools and skills that will last a lifetime. This program will help you not only survive but thrive – even in tough times.

Learn more about Headstrong here.

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