There are infinite ways to approach altruism (well not infinite but neither you nor I likely have the time to go through them all), so what better way than to get straight to heart of the issue: there is no such thing as a purely altruistic act. There, done. Centuries old debate resolved. Why, you ask? It’s simple (and scientific), but before I back up my statement with Google Scholar-driven data (actually, I really did sift through the scientific journals) and Eastern philosophy (which we really should pay attention to), I feel the need to launch into the second half of the statement first: There is no truly altruistic act but it doesn’t matter because we individually and collectively benefit from giving anyway.
Now that you’ve gotten the takeaway point of the blog, I leave it to you to decide whether or not to keep reading (assuming, of course that you haven’t checked out already). Let’s pretend you’ve just made the above statement at Thanksgiving dinner because you’re the nihilistic person in the family and your genetic (and non-genetic) relatives have just rolled their eyes out of not-this-again despair. “Hear me out,” you say, and launch into this:
1) This is your brain. This is your brain on giving. (Please don’t actually say this at the dinner table. It didn’t work in the 80s and it won’t work now. But do check out the research below).
This image is from a study published in NeuroImage that highlights the different parts of your brain that are active when you are selfish (i.e. not giving), when you engage in strategic giving (i.e. giving because you expect adoration, higher status, or something tangible in return), and when you practice prosocial giving (giving without expecting things in return). Even though they are different, there is a fair amount of overlap between strategic and prosocial giving, suggesting that if you can’t bring yourself to be completely altruistic, the act of giving for selfish reasons can still make you feel a little good (though to be clear, we’re saying full altruism makes you feel even better).
2) We are addicted to dopamine. No really, it keeps us alive. Three guesses as to what happens to our dopamine levels when we give.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (read: chemical in our brain that facilitates communication between neurons) that’s most likely behind motivation. Scientists used to think of it exclusively as the pleasure chemical because it was thought to make us feel good, which in turn makes us want to repeat a behavior. This reward system helps guide the behaviors that keep us alive because it feels good to engage in them. Recent research suggests it plays an even stronger role—it makes us wantto do things rather than just give us information about whether we like the thing we’ve just done. The bonus? Doing something for others, i.e. the act of giving, boosts the amount of dopamine in our brain. Theoretically, if you do enough giving you’re more likely to report positive mood and energy, which then make you more likely to give. Now that’s an upward spiral worth participating in.
3) We might be pro-individual success (especially if you’re a fan of Ayn Rand) but there’s an argument to be made forherd success, and that argument is health.
Altruism has been around since humans have been living in communities (so always). There have been multiple explanations for why we engage in giving behaviors—maybe we need it because we want to live in alignment with our moral code, or maybe it’s because we expect others to give to us in return, a phenomenon known as reciprocal altruism. Whatever the case, the group-level benefit of giving, even when it’s at our expense, has kept humans alive for millennia (for a direct pdf of this article, click here). So much so, in fact, that we’ve evolved to find altruistic people more attractive than selfish people. The act of giving, even if it’s just your time, helps us stay happier and healthier. Bonus? Giving might extend your life, especially if you do it for the benefit of the group. Just saying, the thought of living a longer life full of positive experiences, health, and happy neurotransmitters floating around in your brain? It might sound dreamer-esque but the science is there to back it up, and that’s good enough for me. If nothing else, it’s worth a shot, don’t you think?
This is all and good for your personal growth, but what does this mean for the workplace? Well, for starters, employees who engage in prosocial behavior (like giving or helping their colleagues altruistically) are more productive, have fewer relationship conflicts, and are more likely to stay with the company, especially if they feel that their efforts are recognized. Also, the work environment shifts such that more acts of giving are associated with greater conflict resolution abilities.
Is there any way I can cultivate altruistic giving?
Yes. Mindfulness. Not in the “be woke” millennial kind of way (but definitely do that if it works for you), but in the heightened Eastern philosophy self-awareness kind of way. The science behind mindfulness isn’t new—researchers in 1977 recognized that people who had a broader definition of what the “self” was tended to have higher empathy (and engaged in more altruistic acts) because they identified with their fellow humans more frequently. These researchers found that defining yourself as a human rather than an American (or whatever other nationality or identifier resonates with you), understanding the overlap between yourself and those around you, irrespective of their national identity—helps you find common ground, and that makes it easier to give altruistically. Researchers have been connecting the dots between mindfulness practices and prosocial behavior, and the good news is that it’s easy. The Eastern tradition of Mindfulness practices has become so popular in the West that there are literally hundreds of apps, websites, trainings, articles, and podcasts you could reference to boost your own mindfulness skills.
But I’m too busy/stressed out for all this fluffy stuff.
Do you feel like you’re the type of person who is frequently stressed out and finds themselves wishing they had been more mindful in the moment but don’t really know what to do? Well, first off, congratulate yourself on recognizing your strengths (the desire to give) and areas for development (recognizing opportunities before they’ve passed). Then, take some time to reflect on signs that you’re stressed out. Do you get frustrated more easily? Do you feel your heart rate increase? Do your palms sweat? Does that vein in your neck or wrinkle on your brow suddenly appear? Good. Once you’ve identified that you’re stressed you can take a minute to practice some mindfulness and bring your stress levels down. Take a deep breath. Realize that you are one, tiny, beautifully unimportant human in the cosmos and that you are simultaneously the most important person in the universe. You are capable and strong, and you can show your strength in an act of kindness. When you’re in a better head space, schedule time for daily skills practice, even if it’s just for 5 minutes every morning. With the boost in self-awareness tools (think: yoga, meditation, deep breathing techniques, loving-kindness practice, nonjudgmental practice), there’s almost no excuse to not engage in a little mindfulness practice regularly. Mindfulness, like any skill, is one that has to be cultivated.
So go ahead, take the challenge to be more aware of yourself and to use that awareness to give just a little bit more. Give money, give time, give a hug. If you like what happens, great, spread the word. If you don’t, well, at the very least I hope you had a good laugh. That one person, and by proxy the entire world, was made that much better by your one act of giving, and for that, I thank you.
By: Reigna El-Yashruti, M.A.
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