Long ago, Abraham Lincoln said, “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion.” Today, we know that there is scientific evidence underpinning Lincoln’s statement. When we perform good deeds, we feel more calm and peaceful, recover better from depression and heart attacks, and experience increased longevity. Altruism—doing good deeds and performing service for others out of the goodness of our heart—is an ipso facto reciprocated gift.
While altruism was, for a long time, considered a function of the brain’s reward (or pleasure) systems, scientists have discovered that a different part of the brain is also stimulated when we do good deeds. It is a part of the brain that shows heightened activity when one focuses on perceiving others’ actions and intentions. This part of the brain behaves differently in individuals who are altruistic as opposed to individuals who have low altruism. “To be altruistic,” says Dr. Scott Huettel, a neuroscientist at Duke University, “you need to see that the people you’re helping have goals and that your actions will have consequences for them.”
How can we use these scientific findings to make us more altruistic? If we don’t score high on the altruistic scale, perhaps we need to stop focusing exclusively on our own lives. This means moving from naval gazing to seeing others such as a struggling colleague, an out-of-work neighbor, or someone going through a difficult phase in their lives. This includes envisioning their struggles and what benevolent actions we can take to help them.
Here are seven tangible ways that we can foster altruistic behaviors in our life:
1. Teach yourself to have a hero mentality. Learning to be a hero is the brain child of Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, psychologist at Stanford University, who formed The Heroic Imagination Project.The underlying premise of the project is that heroes are not demigods but simply ordinary people who do extraordinary things. The project’s noble goal is “to put decades of experimental research to use in training the next generation of exemplary Americans, churning out good guys with the same efficiency that gangs and terrorist groups produce bad guys.”
Part of the process of learning to be a hero is studying the behaviors of our past heroes such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, as well as learning to recognize in ourselves, any tendencies that can lead us away from helping others, such as the practice of blaming the victim. We can derive an inspiration from this initiative to create our own altruism do-it-yourself project to help those who cross our life’s path.
2. Boost your capacity for selflessness. Brick Johnstone, Professor of Health Psychology in the University of Missouri reports that selflessness, the ability to connect with things beyond the self, can be learned by decreasing activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain. Research has shown that one way to accomplish is through intense meditation.
3. Practice how to be genuinely happy for others’ good fortune. Buddhist philosophy includes the beautiful concept of “mudita” which means “altruistic joy”—that is, rejoicing in the accomplishments and success of others. While it is easy to feel sorry for those who are experiencing difficulties, experiencing sympathetic joy for colleagues who encounter more fortunate circumstances is the mark of an elevated person.
4. Know the difference between charity and philanthropy. Charity is giving help to strangers who are in need or who are suffering. Philanthropy implies love of humankind and is an action intended to promote human welfare. Philanthropy is not simply mailing a cheque or getting rid of a few coins in our pocket by tossing them in a mendicant’s cup. It is larger than that. It is more active and requires a commitment to devote resources or time over an extended period of time.
While very few can be larger-than-life philanthropists like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Ted Turner, we can all practice some form of philanthropy. For example, the next time a summer job opens up at your company, rather than giving it to the sons and daughters of your well-to-do friends or family, call a local high school and ask the principal to recommend a deserving student of modest means with no connections to the corporate world. Do this every year, for a very long time.
5. Give as many people as you can the gift of your smile. Genuine smiles make others feel accepted. This is a valuable gift indeed—especially for those who may not feel a part of the in-group. Recent scientific evidence even suggests that a genuine smile may be indicative of an altruistic disposition.
6. Practice emotional almsgiving. Almsgiving involves giving material goods such as clothing or money. Emotional alms, on the other hand, are intangible bestowals of the heart. Lord Acton, a 19th century author, said this, “There is not a soul who does not have to beg alms of another, either a smile, a handshake, or a fond eye.” The list of emotional alms is long and limited only by the expanse of our heart. They include, for example, lenient judgment of others, deliberately embarking on boosting someone’s confidence or withholding criticism, allowing a subordinate to shine in a meeting, and helping someone save face or redress an error.
7. Allow others to help you. If you are independent-minded and find it difficult to accept help from others, or are always the one taking charge of helping others, consider that you may be doing someone a big favor by allowing her to help you or take the lead in helping others. Helping others gives people the gift of the “helper’s high,” an endorphin rush. Allow others the ability to enjoy that gift.
Helping someone who cannot reciprocate, giving of ourselves with no regard for favors returned, is one of the noblest acts at our disposal in our “gimme, gimme, gimme” Zeitgeist. It enhances the life of others while strengthening our physical, emotional and spiritual selves. It makes us better human beings and shines a bright light in dark corners. Perhaps this is what Henry Ford meant when he said, “To do more for the world than the world does for you—that is success.” And this is a special kind of high, indeed, during the holidays and all year round.
Bruna Martinuzzi is a facilitator, author, speaker, and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd. a company that specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, and presentation skills training. Her latest book is The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.