Altruism involves engaging in selfless acts for the pleasure of it. An example is giving your jacket and shoes to an unsheltered person.
Altruism is a personal value that arises from genuine concern for other people’s well-being.
From everyday gestures, like giving up your seat to give to someone else, to life changing acts of kindness, like donating a kidney, life presents many examples of altruism.
No matter how small or big the effort, altruistic behavior typically has many benefits. For one, just like gratitude and compassion, people who engage in it say it feels really good.
Altruism is the selfless act of helping others without expecting anything in return. “It is often considered one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be human,” says Dr. Jessica Myszak, a psychologist in Glenview, Illinois.
If you’ve heard about the Golden Rule, the concept of karma, or loving thy neighbors, you may already be familiar with the basics of altruism, a prosocial behavior.
“Altruism often arises from a personal sense of compassion or duty, and it can be a powerful force for good in the world,” says Myszak. “It can take many different forms, from volunteering your time to service organizations to anonymously donating gifts or money to those in need.”
Empathy seems to be the foundation of altruistic behavior, which can be further motivated by positive moral rewards, a sense of satisfaction and happiness, and external factors.
Experts have long been fascinated by the motivations of human cooperation, noting four distinct types of altruism:
- Kin altruism. It happens when you unselfishly support your family members and loved ones or make personal sacrifices on their behalf.
- Reciprocal altruism. It occurs when you help someone knowing that, at some point, they may help you in the future as well.
- Cultural group altruism. It involves supporting someone who’s part of a group you are associated with, including ethnic and social groups.
- Pure altruism. It involves helping someone from a place of empathy knowing you will see no benefit, often in high stake situations.
There’s no one exclusive way to practice acts of kindness and empathy toward others — it all counts. Altruistic behavior can come in many forms, and it depends on the type of altruism.
- letting a loved one eat the last piece of cake when you really want it
- giving your sweater to a partner when it’s cold even if you just have a t-shirt on
- caregiving for a relative with a chronic condition
- donating blood or a major organ to your sibling
- taking a second job to pay for your child’s education
- fostering or adopting children
- loaning a friend money, who helped you cover bills
- helping your classmate with a project, who helped you study
- holding the elevator for your colleague, who brought you a coffee
- helping your neighbor lift a heavy package, who helped you fix your car
- watching your friend’s children for an afternoon, who puppy-sat your dog
Cultural group altruism
- starting a nonprofit for a cause you care about
- donating money to an organization that supports people of your background
- donating items to people in your religious group
- bringing refreshments to an event at your kid’s school
- picking up trash at your neighborhood park or beach
- giving a person who’s unhoused spare change and a new pair of shoes
- holding open the door for a stranger
- helping an older adult walking with a cane cross the street
- volunteering at a soup kitchen
- bringing a lost animal to the shelter
- adopting an animal from a kill shelter
- complimenting someone’s outfit
- donating your clothes to a shelter
- giving up your seat to give to a pregnant person
- playing music for older adults in assisted living
- paying for the person in front of you in the drive-thru
- offering pro bono professional services
- delivering food to people with limited mobility
- letting someone with fewer grocery items go ahead of you
Examples of altruism in nature
Altruism is a phenomenon documented among human and animal populations alike.
There may be an evolutionary advantage, particularly for animals in the same family. By helping their own, their relatives may be more likely to pass on altruistic genes to future generations.
“Many animals behave in a way that benefits others, sometimes even to their own detriment,” says Myszak.
“Birds will often warn each other of predators, and mammals will put themselves in danger to protect their young. Animals with complex social structures like bees, ants, and termites protect the other members of their community,” she explains.
“There are even examples of animals helping other species in altruistic ways,” adds Myszak. “Whales and dolphins have been witnessed ‘adopting’ animals in need and showing other species how to escape shallow waters.”
For one, altruism may make the world a kinder place. But it turns out, there are other numerous benefits of altruism to your physical and emotional well-being, too.
“The rewards that come from helping others can be lasting and palpable,” says Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California, and author of the book “Joy From Fear.”
“Individuals who are emotionally, mentally, and behaviorally compassionate tend to thrive on personal and interpersonal levels,” she says. “Research supports the fact that altruistic behaviors are associated with greater overall physical health, longevity, happiness, and well-being.”
Altruism and prosocial behavior may:
- enhance social connections
- increase your sense of community
- improve your mood
protect against cognitive decline
- provide a sense of purpose
- reduce a sense of loneliness
- relieve physical pain
“Altruism is also associated with post-traumatic growth,” says Manly. “Engaging in acts of kindness towards others can be healing for those who have lived through trauma and other mental health conditions.”
1. Consider mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of staying in the present moment. When you learn to disengage from distractions, this may open you up to notice the world around you right here, right now.
For example, the person who’s unhoused on the street corner, the chipping paint at your place of worship, or the community garden in need of a good watering. All of these could be opportunities to act altruistically.
2. Try to grow in empathy
To enhance your empathy, you may want to consider:
- trying to make direct eye contact when someone talks with you
- attending gatherings with diverse groups of people
- following people on social media who are different from you
- listening actively to other people’s perspectives, especially people you disagree with
- checking in with neighbors and co-workers
3. Starting small may help
“Many people can incorporate altruism into their everyday life with small acts of kindness,” says Myszak.
“For example, you can hold the door open for someone, pick up trash that you see on the ground, or offer to help a friend with a project,” she explains. “By performing small acts of kindness on a daily basis, these can add up to big differences in the world.”
4. Consider a group effort
If you feel a little nervous about walking into a new or vulnerable situation, you may find it helpful to reach out to a friend or loved one.
Try to see if they would be willing to join you for an afternoon at a soup kitchen, assisted living facility, or animal shelter, for example.
5. Try to find the right fit
“As you develop a practice of altruism, try to find a good fit to ensure that you don’t overextend yourself,” says Manly.
“For example, you might find several options for volunteering [a pet shelter, community garden, or a shelter for unhoused people] and visit each one to see which environment feels best,” she explains.
Once you commit to an activity that resonates, you can become more invested over time.
“As you give back, it’s important to engage good self-care and solid boundaries to ensure that you care for yourself while also giving to others,” she adds.
Altruism involves acting selflessly for the benefit of others. It can have a meaningful impact on those around you.
Altruistic behavior links to a range of benefits, like improved emotional well-being and physical health.
You may find it helpful to deepen your empathy by connecting with others around you, starting small, and asking loved ones to join you.