January 12, 2017

What is Altruism? Does it Really Exist?

The very concept of Altruism is a tricky one leading many people to ask: What is Altruism? Although a simple question, the answers you'll find here may just open your mind to something greater. Curious? Find out what Altruism really is and if it actually exists.

Looking for the answer to the meaning of Altruism? You've come to the right place. You may not know it but, by entertaining the thought of "what is Altruism?" says something about you. But, we'll get to that later. For now, while you may not be familiar with the word Altruism, it's most likely you're, at least, familiar with the concept. There's a lot packed into the very concept and idea of altruism than you might already know. However, before we get to the intriguing parts, it's appropriate we first start with a solid definition of altruism. The meaning of Altruism by Merriam-Webster defines it as:
"Feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness."
Based on this definition, you may be thinking "is being Altruistic the same as being Selfless?" If it crossed your mind, you wouldn't be wrong. But, you wouldn't be entirely right either. In fact, the idea of altruism is a little more than nuanced than that. Put another way, 'selflessness' is a state of being, while 'altruism' is an action. It's a way in which we practice selflessness. Make sense?

Selflessness Through Humility

Now, you may be asking, how do we become Selfless in the first place? Great question! As philosopher C. S. Lewis once observed;
"True humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less."
Let's be clear. Selflessness through humility is not to despise yourself, but rather to exalt others. In other words, it's not about putting yourself down or cutting yourself short. No. It's about you wanting to raise others up! To put others first. To look out for those you care about.

Humility and Altruism

So, what does humility have to do with altruism? True humility causes us to focus on something outside of ourselves. The core of selflessness. It's through learning to show humility to the world that we then become selfless. Once we become selfless in our ways, we then truly begin to understand what it means to be altruistic. What, then, is Altruism?
It is an action which seeks the good of another over the good of oneself.
For instance, it may be a sacrifice of your time to help someone in need. It may be giving money to a charitable cause. Or, it could be something as simple as giving the bigger cookie to a sibling. In essence, it's any action that puts someone else first.

Does Altruism Really Exist?

"I slept, and I dreamed that life is all joy," wrote poet Kahlil Gibran. "I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served, and I saw that service is joy."

A beautiful enlightenment that presents a puzzling quandary. When we feel good about helping others, it creates happy, satisfied feelings in ourselves. But is that an act of altruism? If you've watched the TV sitcom Friends, you'll probably remember the episode where Joey challenges Phoebe that 'there are no selfish good deeds.' Do you know it? If you've seen the episode, it raises a good point. If putting others above yourself makes you happy, is it really altruistic after all? Think about it, if you get something out of it, are you really being selfless?

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The key to this seemingly impossible paradox is in Lewis's observation. Remember, it's not about thinking less of ourselves, but rather thinking of ourselves less. The reality is, it's impossible to avoid reward for an altruistic act altogether. See, naturally, our minds are wired to derive pleasure from good actions, as an incentive to overcome our selflessness. And there's nothing wrong with that!

Then, What is Altruism?

Think about for a moment. When you use your time, offer a gift, or sacrifice the bigger cookie, which is the first thought that comes to your mind:
  1. "I'll feel good if I do this," or,
  2. "I want them to have this."
The former is known as reciprocal altruism—performing a seemingly selfless action in expectation of what you'll get in return. The latter, however, is more about simply giving as opposed to receiving. This type of act is an example of pure selflessness. Ultimately what altruism is about.

So does altruism exist? Absolutely. You demonstrate altruism not when you do something for nothing, but when you do something expecting nothing. You're content to do good for someone else whether you feel good or get something in return—or not. Your motivation is their good, not your own. Whether you do, in the end, receive good for yourself becomes irrelevant.

Why is it Important?

Imagine a world where altruism doesn't exist. A world where everyone acts only in their own best interests. Where no one ever looks out for anyone else or, has any regard for anyone's well-being except their own. Parents don't care for children, governments don't help their citizens, and people's cars break down on the road with no hope that anyone else will stop to help them. Law officials don't answer calls. Employers don't treat their employees with respect. No one gives gifts. No one is considerate.

In short, no one cares to be selfless. No one cares for a greater good.

Fortunately the world today isn't like that. There are a lot of good people doing a lot of good things. Many, in their humble altruistic way. There are good people all around us. People who are here to help us become better people. From family and friends to the stranger you met at the grocery store. Each time we decide to look beyond ourselves, our mood, and our interests to see how we can help others—we improve. Sometimes, all it needs to be is a friendly word or a smile.

Show Your Altruistic Colors

Being altruistic might be that when our significant other wants burgers and we want seafood, we choose burgers. It means that when we're angry at the checkout clerk and we feel like being rude, we are instead patient and understanding. Altruism is important as it's a vital part of life. It's there to improve us, those around us, and ultimately—the world we live in. Without it, humanity would be cast into the shadow of rampant greed and isolation which one could only imagine—lead to a catastrophic state of affairs.

See also: The Paying it Forward Meaning and the Link to Altruism.

Make a Positive Difference

In the next article, we will explore a particular method of practicing altruism. But, for now, the next time you come upon a situation that calls for you to act either in your own interest or, in the interest of someone else, consider putting them above yourself. Give it a try. You may just find that it'll make you feel better than putting yourself first. And remember, instead of focusing on you, focus on the smile it will put on their face, and the way it will improve their day. No matter what happens, know that you too can be an altruistic person. A person who leads by example. A person who can make a difference in this world.