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Altruism & Happiness

As long as acts of kindness don’t become obligatory or overwhelming, they can enrich the giver and the whole community.

Altruism in all its forms—kindness, generosity, compassion, volunteering, and donating money—has the potential to reward the giver as much or more than the recipient.

Acts of kindness

Altruism—including kindness, generosity, and compassion—are keys to the social connections that are so important to our happiness. Research finds that acts of kindness—especially spontaneous, out-of-the ordinary ones—can boost happiness in the person doing the good deed.

Reasons why acts of kindness make people happier:

  • Being generous leads us to perceive others more compassionately; we typically find good qualities in people to whom we are kind
  • Being kind promotes a sense of connection and community with others, which is one of the strongest factors in increasing happiness
  • Being generous helps us appreciate and feel grateful for our own good fortune
  • Being generous boosts our self-image; it helps us feel useful and gives us a way to use our strengths and talents in a meaningful way
  • Being kind can start a chain reaction of positivity; being kind to others may lead them to be grateful and generous to others, who in turn are grateful and kind to others

Volunteers see greater benefits than those they are serving

One study followed women with multiple sclerosis (MS) who volunteered as peer supporters to other patients. They received training in compassionate listening techniques and called the patients to talk and listen for 15 minutes at a time. The study followed the volunteers for three years and found that they had increased self-esteem, self-acceptance, satisfaction, self-efficacy, social activity, and feelings of mastery. The positive outcomes for the volunteers were even greater than for the patients they were helping.

Compassion fosters happiness, but being sacrificial reduces well-being

Being kind and compassionate is linked to greater happiness, greater levels of physical activity well into old age, and longevity. One important caveat: if people get overextended and overwhelmed by helping tasks, as can happen with people who are caregivers to family members, their health and quality of life can rapidly decline. It seems being generous from an abundance of time, money, and energy can promote well-being; but being sacrificial quickly lowers well-being. This seems to be a good argument for communities sharing the burden for everyone’s benefit.

The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubormirsky

Common misconceptions

Wealthy people are the most generous.
Not as a percentage of income. Many wealthy people have made tremendous contributions to philanthropy. However, poorer people consistently give a larger percentage of their income—about twice as large—compared to wealthier households. And they are less likely than wealthy people to cut back on their giving in tough economic times.

Being kind and generous always makes you feel better.

There is plenty of evidence that kindness promotes happiness in the person doing the good deed. However, if kindness becomes an obligation, a routine, or becomes overwhelming (as in providing care to a chronically ill family member), it can actually erode well-being. Kindness works best when it is freely given.

People with time on their hands are the most likely to volunteer.

This doesn’t seem to be the case. Working women and women with children have the highest volunteer rates. Students also volunteer at high rates. And people who don’t volunteer have enough time on their hands to watch an average of 23 hours of television a week.

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