I’m sure we’ve all heard of ‘altruism’, but do we truly know what it means and how important it is to our wellbeing? With Random Acts of Kindness Day around the corner we speak to Alicia Drummond, our in-house mental health specialist and founder of Teen Tips and The Wellbeing Hub, about how powerful being genuinely kind can be, not just for others but for ourselves.
What is altruism?
Simply put, altruism is behaving in ways which benefit another person but at a cost, or perhaps even a risk, to ourselves. Giving your takeaway to a homeless person is altruistic behaviour – they benefit, and you go hungry. Emptying the dishwasher is an act of altruism because someone else gains time, but you lose it. Jumping into a river to rescue a drowning swimmer is altruistic because you put yourself at risk to save someone else. If you get thanks for having done any of these things, then that is a bonus, but you did not set out to be rewarded.
Most of us like the idea of doing something nice for someone else, but it is only truly altruistic if we don’t expect any personal gain.
Helping someone with their homework because you want them to include you in their social circle, is not altruism. Doing a favour for someone with the intention of asking for it to be repaid at some point further down the line, is not altruism.
How is altruism good for our wellbeing?
Is altruistic behaviour something we are born with or is it something we learn? Scientists who study evolution, including I might add, Darwin, argue that altruism is deeply ingrained in human nature because helping others and cooperation ensure the survival of our species. Neuroscience shows that when we act for the benefit of others, the reward part of our brain fires up and we get an endorphin hit like when we have eaten chocolate or taken exercise. True altruism benefits the giver as much as the receiver, which is why some people, including the Dalai Lama, have called it “selfish altruism”.
Being selfish, it would appear, is not always a bad thing!
What are the SN team’s most memorable experiences of kindness?
I was in Starbucks in Basingstoke and someone in front of me paid for my drink. I was so taken aback that I ended up doing the same for the person behind me so I could pass it on. Who knows how long that went on for down the queue! I kept remembering it throughout the day – it really put a smile on my face. – Tash
During lockdown, I started using my local fruit and veg shop, Roots and Shoots, for our family weekly needs. One day I went in to get some more produce and they had some homemade cupcakes ready and waiting for children of their regular customers. I had two children at the time, and they insisted that I took two cakes home. My children devoured them! The staff are always very chatty and patient with my girls when we go into the shop together. It just left a very good feeling of being part of a caring community. – James
After a miserable ‘drive of shame’ home due to catching Covid and having to cut short our family staycation in Cornwall, I was greeted to a fully stocked larder and fridge, enough and more to see us through our isolation period. Evidently the shelves of Boots had also been cleared, if the stockpile of paracetamol and disgusting but effective cough lozenges was anything to go by! I am forever thankful to the Food Fairies (aka my parents). – Milly