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HHH Blog

40. Altruism

PUBLISHED 15th November , 2016

Today let’s look at altruism. Altruism means being motivated toward a goal that benefits someone else.  Initially, one of the things that attracted me to positive psychology was its emphasis on virtues. I always felt that this science was on par with the advice my late grandmother would have given, such as: be a good person, look to the positive, have poise in bearing your hardships. And Grandma Irene was a truly altruistic person. She knitted blankets and socks for the poor, gave away most of her income to good causes, helped where and whom she could, cleaned the church for years, and took in children and adults who needed respite or a holiday. For Grandma Irene, giving and helping was a way of life.

The longer I have worked with positive psychology, the more I have become convinced that altruism is an important aspect of living a happy and fulfilling life. The world would have us think that our life is ours, that we are living it for ourselves. But I now consider this outlook insufficient, lacking in broader meaning.

In his theory on authentic happiness, Martin Seligman proposed that there are three pillars to it: the pleasant, the good and the meaningful life. The pleasant life is one in which we successfully pursue positive emotions in the present, past and future. The present offers opportunities for enjoyment of bodily pleasures and through our senses, which can be enhanced via savouring, mindfulness and being fully engaged (in flow). Positive feelings from the past can be gathered by letting the bad go and being grateful for the good. The future holds positive emotion for us if we practice optimism and hopefulness.1

In the good life we use our signature strengths to obtain gratification in our main realms of life. Seligman argues that the more we are able to own and exercise our signature strengths, the happier we are.2 To live the meaningful life, we need to use our signature strengths in the service of something larger than ourselves. It means aligning our work life to our strengths and what we consider meaningful. According to Seligman, the meaningful life is the pinnacle of an authentic, fulfilled and happy life.3

Seligman has since moved on from this theory, but it has not lost its power when applied. I witness its relevance in observing my clients, who, when asked to perform kind deeds out of their signature strengths, change from feeling depressed to feeling really good about themselves. Being good to others leaves them feeling capable of living a good life.

Altruism challenges a commonly accepted philosophy, which has snuck up while we were not watching. Batson, Ahmad, Lishner and Tsang write:

Universal egoism – the assumption that all human behaviour is ultimately directed toward self-benefit – has long dominated not only psychology but also other social and behavioural sciences.4

Batson and colleagues point out that before we can claim that altruism exists, we have to first negate a world of argument that says: “Yes, but you did it for yourself in the end”. Egoism, they write, is in fact easier to argue. Behind our helping could be a desire for reward or praise. Perhaps we help because we don’t want to be judged for not helping, or to avoid feeling guilty or ashamed if we haven’t. It is possible that we try to reduce someone else’s pain in order to minimise our own distress in witnessing it. Or perhaps we help simply maintain our self-image.5

And yet altruism exists, and, as Batson and colleagues point out, this matters to us as a species and what we are capable of doing.6 Just think for a moment – if we all stopped living so much for ourselves – how the world could change!

Even just being witness to others’ moral conduct has an effect on us. Erickson and Abelson conducted a study to assess whether moral elevation can increase positive feelings in depressed and anxious individuals. The term moral elevation stands for feeling uplifted and inspired when we observe acts of virtues, for example when someone is generous or courageous. At the same time, witnessing behaviours that affront our sense of morality can leave us feeling dirty and disgusted (which I shall term moral downers –something worth considering next time we pick a movie!). Erickson and Abelson found that depressed or anxious people – who tend to strongly focus on themselves – did indeed benefit from moral elevation. It lifted their sense of compassion, inspired them to be close to and help others, and reduced their experience of interpersonal conflict and symptoms of their own distress.7 If further research can support this approach, we could start curing people by exposing them to beautiful acts of mankind, which would make them well. That’s incredible, isn’t it?

Batson and colleagues argue that one of the sources of altruism, if not the source, is empathy. We feel empathy when we personally identify with or have a real experience of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. According to Batson and colleagues, various concepts are related to empathy. These include: Knowledge of another’s inner state (i.e. aiming to be accurate in understanding another’s thoughts and feelings); adopting another’s posture in being observed (i.e. changing one’s perception of being the person viewing to being the person viewed); feeling the feelings of the other (i.e. sensing what their inner experience is, including feeling their suffering); imagining oneself in the situation of the other (i.e. aiming to glimpse their reality); and lastly, considering how one would feel and think if one was in the situation of the other (i.e. taking their perspective).8 Perhaps it is easier to use the common term of “walking in another’s shoes”. Any of these concepts can help us in furthering our capacity for empathy, and with it, altruism.

Jordan, Mullen and Murningham write that people have a desire to view themselves as moral actors, and this contributes to their striving for, and attaining of, a sense of self-completeness. People have a moral self-image. Jordan and colleagues’ study considered how recalling past moral and immoral actions impacted on individuals’ identities, intentions and behaviours. They found that those who recalled their immoral actions consequently made more effort to bolster their moral self-image than those who recalled their moral behaviour. Importantly, the worse people thought they had behaved, the harder they tried to compensate. Further, their study showed that when individuals recalled their moral actions it actually lessened their good intentions toward others. Lastly, the motivation toward moral compensation only applied when individuals considered their own actions, and not the moral actions of others.9

What does this mean? It means that if we consider ourselves to be helpful and kind people who care about the welfare and feelings of others, we are on the right track – because how we view ourselves impacts on our wellbeing. But if we get too comfortable and take the moral high ground, we are bound to fall short in our upcoming actions. And thus we all benefit from trying even harder to wear another’s shoes if we want to be comfortable in our own.

© Natalie Lydia Barker 2016


  1. Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (New York: Free Press, 2004).
  2. Seligman, Authentic Happiness.
  3. Seligman, Authentic Happiness.
  4. Daniel Batson, Nadia Ahmad, David A. Lishner and Jo-Ann Tsang, “Empathy and Altruism” in Handbook of Positive Psychology, eds. C. R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  5. Batson, Ahmad, Lishner and Tsang, “Empathy and Altruism”.
  6. Batson, Ahmad, Lishner and Tsang, “Empathy and Altruism”.
  7. Thane M. Erickson and James L. Abelson, “Even the Downhearted May Be Uplifted: Moral Elevation in the Daily Life of Clinically Depressed and Anxious Adults,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 31, no. 7 (2012).
  8. Batson, Ahmad, Lishner and Tsang, “Empathy and Altruism”.
  9. Jennifer Jordan, Elizabeth Mullen and J. Keith Murninghan, “Striving for the Moral Self: The Effects of Recalling Past Moral Actions on Future Moral Behavior,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37, no. 5 (2011).
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