Altruism is described as the ‘disinterested and selfless concern for the well being of others’. Behaviour is usually considered altruistic when it is motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself. But can giving ever be considered wholly selfless, or do we ultimately act in our own interests?

Altruism is said to sit at the opposite pole to egoism; a theory that suggests all human interest ultimately centres around the self. Pure altruism on the other hand, is an act that benefits another individual at the cost of oneself. Some philosophers suggest that egoism lies at the root of human nature, that in order to survive, we have to look after number one, and because of this, no act is totally selfless. Giving allows us to help other people, but essentially, it makes us feel good or look good in the eyes of others.

What goes around comes around!

Reciprocal altruism is probably the most common form of kind act we see. This kind of altruism works on the premise that, whilst our state of being may be temporarily sacrificed for the sake of another, we are eventually rewarded. On a macro-level, reciprocal altruism can produce cooperative cultures or behaviours. It works to establish norms of collective care – we assume that others will do to us as we do to them.

Studies show that altruism can make us genuinely happy. Generosity activates an area in the brain called the ‘striatum’, which responds to things we find rewarding, resulting in a ‘warm glow’. Even if we don’t receive something tangible in return, the feeling of satisfaction we get from helping others can be enough of a ‘repayment’. This is one reason why we often derive more joy from spending on others than on ourselves and is linked to the idea of ‘helper’s high‘.

Looking at altruism in this way, frames most giving or acts of kindness as reactive. The idea of some kind of happiness chain is also helpful when thinking about acts of kindness. We often mimic the behaviours of those around us, so when we see the positive impact our giving has made on someone else’s life, we tend to respond positively too. This kind of giving is so effective it has even found its way on to the high street – Pret launched its ‘make someone smile’ campaign putting special sleeves on coffee cups, entitling someone to a free coffee. The brand encouraged people to pass on the sleeves to make someone else smile.

Even when giving has a benefit to ourselves, it does not mean that our acts of kindness aren’t kind or genuine. After all, most altruistic acts rely on some kind of empathy for another. So keep acting in kindness and help others to help yourself!

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