Can altruistic acts improve your overall wellbeing?
Updated: Sep 29
Too often, particularly in capitalistic societies in the Western world, wellbeing is defined and therefore understood on parameters that are far too narrow. When considering one’s wellbeing or one’s success, people often struggle to get past material accumulation, career prospects and monetary wealth when considering how ‘well off they are’ or how successful they have been in their lives. Contrary to what so many people think and aspire towards, more money and more power does not equate to more happiness. In 2010, economist Angus Deaton concluded that increases in emotional well being do not correspond with increases in annual income beyond $75,000 [USD] a year . Although perhaps it’s overly simplistic to say that money can’t buy happiness, I do believe that several other factors have to be considered when thinking about wellbeing and happiness.
Research in the field of wellbeing in recent years has been extensive and varied and it would be very easy to draw upon a number of studies to present certain arguments. For example, in 2008, The New Economics Foundation developed a set of steps that we can all take to improve our personal wellbeing, and therefore our subjective happiness . Interestingly, money isn’t mentioned at all. The five, evidence based steps individuals can take to improve their wellbeing are:
Connect – connect with people around you – family, friends, neighbours, community members
Be active – discover a physical activity that you enjoy and can practice regularly
Take notice – Be curious, catch site of the different and appreciate the beauty of the world around you
Keep learning – Try something new, re-discover a new interest, set yourself a challenge
Give – Do something nice. Smile at someone. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Be the change you wish to see in the world.
The NEF has spent a lot of time researching how the combination of each of these five steps can improve people’s wellbeing and happiness, and I love the idea. I practice the concept both personally and professionally, and I can be honest and say that it has a profound impact on my overall wellbeing. For the purposes of this short blog post, however, I want to focus on step number five: the act of giving.
I wholeheartedly believe that altruistic endeavours can improve our own sense of worth and can make us feel happy, satisfied and productive. Just take a minute to think about the last time you went out of your way to do something nice for someone, without expecting anything in return. Did you feel good about it? Did you feel as if your contribution had a positive impact on that person’s life? If the answer is yes, then you’re not alone in this trait of thinking. In a seminal 2005 research study entitled Altruism, Happiness and Health: it’s good to be good, Stephen Post concluded that “a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviourally compassionate.”  I would certainly agree. Having the will, motivation and dedication to help improve the world in a small way is something that is commendable, and should be celebrated.
Having spent a number of years facilitating development projects in rural communities in south-western Uganda, I have become very close to a number of people who have tried to make the world a better place for others, in spite of the fact that they have very little themselves. I’ve worked with people in Uganda who have given up everything to help improve the lives of members of their communities and have given up opportunities to move away and earn lots of money for themselves and their families. It’s been truly inspiring to meet people with such a mind-set, and an absolute pleasure to work alongside them. I’ve worked with Ugandans who have built a school in a village where children have never had the opportunity to attend school previously; I’ve been moved by people who have given so much of their own time, and money, to renovate a dilapidated health centre that exists as the primary care facility for 5000 people; and I’ve been inspired by pioneering individuals who have advocated for the betterment of their communities in the face of extreme adversity.
The common personality trait that these change makers share, in my opinion, is gratitude. The people that I’ve been working with over the past few years are grateful for what they have and they use this as a springboard from which to give something back to their communities. As a result, they are determined to help their friends, neighbours and other community members improve their lives. In the communities that I have visited and worked in, there is a collective appreciation that altruistic acts, no matter how small, have the potential to catalyse change both intrinsically and extrinsically.
We are all capable of altruism, it is not simply innate. We can all do a little bit extra to help people out, whether it’s volunteering in a local hospice, holding a door open for the person behind us when we’re in a hurry, or making a small donation to a charitable cause that we’re passionate about. Give it a go. Be altruistic, even if for selfish reasons. You might end up feeling good about it.
You might even change the world. Ross.