Thanks to pioneers like Robert Emmons and Michael McCollough, we now know that gratitude can have an enormously positive effect on our mental health. Not only that, thanks to the advent of neuroplasticity, practicing gratitude can even help shape our brains in ways that promote resilience and well-being.
If you need a refresher on ways to practice gratitude, check out my post: 5 Steps to Gratitude and Lovingkindness: Mondays Mindful Quote with Hafiz.
But this post isn’t just about gratitude, it’s about taking it a step further to another stage called altruism. Altruistic behavior is all about acting selflessly to help serve or benefit others. Altruistic behavior has been found to be a predictor of happiness and life satisfaction (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Altruism is also tied to another hot topic in our culture today and that is compassion and kindness. In this blog I have written a number of posts about compassion and kindness because they are such good nutrition for our health and well-being. Compassion has been called an antidote to anger, and kindness has been called and antidote to fear.
Now, it could be argued that because of all the personal benefits you may experience from engaging with kindness, compassion and altruism that these endeavors are not pure because you know they will serve your mental health. In other words, they’re ego-driven. Try and set this argument aside for now as we move into the social implication of kindness, compassion and altruism.
While the brain takes longer to register compassion for social pain than individual pain, the effect is longer lasting when awareness around social pain settles in. There are certain tragedies in this world that are so apparent that a compassion trigger gets set off in the brain and we feel called to action. We have an unselfish drive to help other people and this is what altruism is all about.
Whether it’s 9/11, the tragedy of Darfur, Haiti or the recent Paris terrorist attacks, millions of people feel the calling to help. No matter how much we may be suffering in any given moment, we all have this truly bright side inside of us. It’s absolutely there.
So as they say, an ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of theory, so let’s get practical.
Consider this question right now:
- Without judgment, ask yourself, where does altruism show up in my life?
Altruism could come in the form of service. Or it could be funds given to a cause that you are interested in. Or it could be a conscious smile to the person in the checkout line of a grocery store. Altruism could come in the act of recycling or planting some trees, thus giving back to the planet. It could mean volunteering at a homeless shelter or volunteering time to tutor someone. It can come in the act of knitting a hat or scarf for someone or donating food to the needy.
If you’re not noticing much, what are some ways you can consider integrating altruism into your day? If you use a scheduling system, put it in there now to remind you to do so.
There are ways every day to show compassion and gratitude through altruism.
Compassion isn’t complete unless it includes yourself. Turning your values into verbs not only helps the world, but the scientific evidence is clear giving also helps lift you. Practicing and repeating this is like nurturing the garden of happiness in your mind; little by little your garden can flourish.
Elisha Goldstein, PhD