Thriving Together Series: Altruism


by Philip Wilkerson, Manager, Industry Advising and Employer Development, University Career Services

“The one who plants trees, knowing that he or she will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” – Rabindranath Tagore

I was asked the other day, “What makes you happy? I thought about that long and hard during these trying times and I realize that even though I am a generally positive person, this year has made it very difficult to answer that question with confidence. What makes this especially difficult is experiencing the plight of Black people when facing systemic racism and oppression. Holding onto my joy is just as much of a fight for social justice as anything else. But I have found joy, and I have found that joy in my family and friends, as well as when I receive good news from others: especially students who helped at my time here at Mason. I wondered why my cup is filled when I hear good news from others, and the word that came to mind was altruism

Altruism is a selfless concern for other people’s well-being. It’s something that keeps me rooted in my purpose, grounded in my faith, and believing in a better world. Altruism reaffirms my optimism that situations will get better because when I help someone else, I can see the tangible results of my influence and support. Watching others be successful lets me know that the work that I do has intertwined with my purpose and that I am truly making a positive difference in the world 

According to “Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good” by Stephen G. Post in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, many studies have found that altruistic emotions and behaviors are associated with greater well-being, health, and longevity. Yes, studies have found that living a life of serving others has extended people’s lives! People who engaged in helping behavior generally report feeling good about themselves, and this has measurable physiological correlations. A study by Elizabeth Midlarsky called “Helping as coping proposed five benefits for older adults who engage in altruistic behavior are 1) enhanced social integration, 2) distraction from your own problems 3) enhanced meaningfulness, 4) increased perception of self-efficacy and competence, and 5) All these benefits can contribute to overall mental and physical health and can contribute to a longer more active and purposeful life.   

Ways to Practice Altruism 

One practice that can help you build up selfless altruism is to donate to a cause anonymously. Make sure the cause is helpful and meaningful to you. When you help someone without recognition, science shows that you are tapping into your intrinsic motivation and helping someone else because you feel a moral obligation to do so and not because you are told to or because you want recognition. You feel good because you feel it is the right thing to do. 

Another practice is helping a neighbor in need without telling them. This could be cutting their lawn or taking their trash out. This builds up a sense of community and a sense of connection to others. 

Lastly, one practice you can try that I employ is holding on to the “thank you” notes and emails I receive from others. In my office I have all the thank you notes posted right behind my computer so that when I am feeling down, I can look at these cards and get a boost of confidence or morale. In my email, I have a “good news” folder where I have saved every success story I have received from past students. These reminders are good news fuel. They feed my sense of worth at work as they remind me that I’m positively impacting others.

I may only be a sentence in the book of someone else’s life, but that’s enough. Some people I help will go on to do great things and when they do, I am going to feel proud to be a part of their lives. You can also have a powerfully positive impact on people’s lives through altruism.

Additional Resources 

The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education presents many resources related to altruism.

Using the Five Minute Journal every day can help you clarify your values and put them into action through altruism.

The Greater Good Science Center features many articles on altruism, a podcast, and a toolkit to help you build your well-being.

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