Altruism and the desire to do good

For many people, the desire to leave the world a better place for having been in it, even if only on an infinitesimally small scale, is closely connected to what gives their life meaning.

The need to be useful, to make the world a better place, to matter, to make a difference, to contribute to society in some way – these are common themes in both religious and atheistic philosophies.

Many teachers, nurses, and doctors choose the careers they do for exactly these reasons. And countless people have given up careers in finance and the corporate world, and moved into more altruistic types of work, for these reasons too.

And it’s not just through our choice of career that we act altruistically. Volunteering for a community organisation or donating to a charity – the ways in which we act in altruistic ways on a daily basis are endless. Even small acts of kindness and generosity – to family and friends, to neighbours, even to complete strangers – can bring a sense of meaning and a feeling of connection.

As a psychologist, I know that a large part of what motivates me to work hard and do the best for my patients is a desire to make a positive difference to their lives.

And, as with any form of altruistic act, it’s not just the people that we interact with directly that benefit. The ripple effect of altruism means that making a positive difference to one person’s life may well have a positive knock-on effect, to a greater or lesser extent, on an incalculable amount of people with whom they are connected.

There are also people who turn what might have been a negative thing in their life, like an illness or an accident, into something more positive by acting in altruistic ways. For example, for some amputees and wheelchair users, being a role model to younger people in a similar situation can bring meaning to their lives.

And people diagnosed with terminal illnesses can also find great meaning in the last months of their lives through doing things for others. A recent example would be the inspirational British teenager Stephen Sutton who raised £5 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust before he died, aged only 19, after a four year battle with bowel cancer.

Of course we’ve all heard the argument that there is no such thing as a truly altruistic act; that man is fundamentally a selfish being and does nothing for anyone else unless it will benefit him in some way.

There are multiple theories as to what it is that motivates us to behave in altruistic ways: because we want to be as seen as good by others; as a way of securing our place in heaven; because at an evolutionary level we are genetically programmed to help out other members of our species (with the, albeit unconscious, hope of them one day helping us out in return).

There are many, many other supposed reasons, and I don’t doubt that there is some truth to a great deal of them. I would agree that it is extremely likely that many of these factors are at play when we act altruistically.

But that doesn’t change the point with which I started this post:

For many people, the desire to leave the world a better place for having been in it, even if only on an infinitesimally small scale, is closely connected to what gives their life meaning.

Surely not even the most cynical evolutionary biologist or sociologist can dispute that?

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