What drives people to be good? Learn about altruism, what it is and how to incorporate it into your life.
For the most part, we all try to be “good” people. We try to keep in touch with our friends and family and tend to look out for each other in the ways we can. Whether it be something as simple as helping an elderly person cross the road or as dramatic as trying to pull someone out of a car wreck, people have a habit of wanting to help one another.
However, we know that not all people are good or at least don’t make good choices all the time. So why do people perform great displays of compassion, kind-heartedness, and benevolence? Perhaps more importantly, what drives them to such acts – selflessness or other reasons motivated by darker self-interests?
To start, what do we mean when we say altruism? The term “altruism” was popularized as the opposite of egoism by the French philosopher Auguste Comte (Etymology Dictionary). Altruisme, as it is called in French, was derived from the Latin alteri which means “somebody else” or “other people” (Ciciloni, 1825). This makes sense when we look at the definition of altruism—it is defined generally as the action of acting for the benefit of others—an unselfish concern for other people (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Basically, altruism is helping out others with no expectation to get anything out of it.
Psychological altruism is believed to be primarily related to the empathetic desire to help people who are suffering. People have studied altruism from a psychological perspective, trying to find out why a person acts without motives of self-interest.
Here are a couple theories that psychologists have:
Evolution. For instance, psychologists have studied altruism from an evolutionary standpoint and have stated that we help relatives to continue our bloodlines (Sisco & Weber, 2019).
Environment. Other theories include that our early environment influences how we will be when we grow up. Altruism is a prosocial behavior – or behavior that helps and benefits other people (Eisenberg, 1982). If we model these prosocial behaviors in front of others, they in return are more likely to mirror it.
Altruism from an anthropological point of view is the moral notion that we help each other due to our inherent need for cooperation for social welfare (Cortes & Dweck, 2014). For example, when you give up your seat on a bus for an elderly person, you do so because it is in the interest of social and moral well-being.
Other scientists try to see how altruism originates in our brains. Researchers have shown that our brains can actually develop in a certain way to be more altruistic than others (Klimecki et al., 2014). More altruistic people are able to recognize fear easily in others and are better able to detect when someone is in danger.
This is due to the brain region called the amygdala (also known as the emotional center of our brain) that activates our expressions of fear and thus we can act to protect or help others who feel fear. We all have the hardware to help others but whether we develop it is another story.
Altruism can benefit us in a variety of ways:
Altruism can improve our health, such as by lowering blood pressure (Wang et al., 2019; Poulin at al., 2013).
Altruism can improve mental health, as doing good deeds to help others can make you feel happy (Aknin et al., 2015).
Altruism can improve relationships and social connections – being able to help and understand others can often bring peace of mind (Aknin et al., 2015).
How to Be More Altruistic
Here are some tips to help you be more altruistic:
Practicing empathy. Practicing empathy can help build social connections and aid with feelings of isolation. Try to put a face to the problems you see, consider how you would feel in that situation, and then think about what you could do to try to help make a difference.
Finding inspiration. There are altruistic people all around us. Through the use of the media or in your social circles, you can find inspiration. Whether it be from small acts or larger displays of heroics, we can all become inspired by others in our communities.
Set yourself goals. Start with something small – help with chores around the house or spend more time with people you care about. You can then advance your goals to volunteering at a shelter, retirement home, or somewhere else. Whether big or small, any steps toward altruism are positive progress.
Final Thoughts on Altruism
There is no one way to be altruistic – it can be anything from supporting our family to helping complete strangers. Or, it can be anything from helping someone cross the road to pulling someone out of a fire – these are all ways to help others with little to no self-benefit.
Aknin, L. B., Broesch, T., Hamlin, J. K., & Vondervoort, J. W. (2015). Prosocial behavior leads to happiness in a small-scale rural society. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(4), 788–795.
Ciciloni, F. (1825). A Grammar of the Italian Language. London: John Murray. p. 64
Cortes Barragan, R., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). Rethinking natural altruism: simple reciprocal interactions trigger children's benevolence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(48), 17071–17074.
Eisenberg, N. (ed.) (1982). The Development of Prosocial Behavior. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2014). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 9(6), 873–879.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Altruism. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 25, 2022.
Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Dillard, A. J., & Smith, D. M. (2013). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American journal of public health, 103(9), 1649–1655.
Sisco, M. R., & Weber, E. U. (2019). Examining charitable giving in real-world online donations. Nature communications, 10(1), 3968.
Wang, Y., Ge, J., Zhang, H., Wang, H., & Xie, X. (2020). Altruistic behaviors relieve physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(2), 950–958.