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Altruism: How To Transform Your World

“Love is the only thing that doubles every time it’s given” – Albert Schweitzer.

Stephen Post defines altruism as “unselfish delight in the well-being of others, and engagement in acts of care and service on their behalf. Unlimited love extends this love to all others without exception, in an enduring and constant way.”  In Christianity, this form of love is known as agapē.

Altruism by Mathieu Ricard is an incredible read, and more relevant than ever.  It celebrates the importance of serving others. Positive feelings will show up when you’re being altruistic, but those are not the primary motive.

Ricard’s book shows that an altruistic attitude leads to more joy and fulfillment in life than a selfish mindset.  It’s an enormous book, and I was finally motivated to read it because I couldn’t tolerate my self-centered worldview any longer.

Below are five powerful lessons I learned from reading Altruism:

1. People Are Naturally Altruistic

I’ve often read that human nature is primarily selfish.  This has long been an assumption of psychologists, economists, and philosophers.  Even our generosity is supposedly prompted by a desire for the sense of satisfaction that results.

Ricard blows this theory apart.  He shares scientific studies that show altruistic behavior in children, starting at 18-months old.  This proves that altruistic actions are part of human nature.  

We have a natural tendency towards altruism. As we grow older, society trains us to be more self-centered and only give when we expect something in return.  The ability to show kindness and generosity toward others is a skill we must develop within ourselves.

“The nature of the relationship between kindness and happiness becomes clear. Each engenders and reinforces the other; they stem from a feeling of harmony with ourselves. Plato said, “The happiest man is he who has no trace of malice in his soul. Altruism, kindness, and happiness also make sense from the point of view of the evolution of the social animals we are. Love, affection, and concern for others are, in the long run, essential to our survival.” – Mathieu Ricard

2. Be Altruistic Towards Everyone

Altruism isn’t a switch you can turn on and off.  It’s a way of viewing the world.  You’ll be able to help some people more than others, but altruistic love should be shown to everyone.

You can be altruistic by showing kindness to another driver during rush hour, making their day just a tiny bit better.  Altruism is also shown by diving in to save someone who’s drowning. Despite the difference in impact, both of these actions are altruistic.

“We may take the image of the sun. It shines over all people equally, with the same brightness and the same warmth in every direction. Yet, there are people who, for various reasons, are closer to it and receive more heat, but that privileged situation does not entail exclusion. It seems therefore possible to develop the kind of goodness that embraces all living beings while caring the best we can for those who fall within the sphere of our responsibilities.” – Mathieu Ricard

3. Altruism and Empathy

It’s normal to assume that altruism and empathy go hand-in-hand.  In fact, of the eight types of empathy shared in the book, only one of them tends to lead to effective altruism.

Imagining what someone else is feeling is not enough to help them.  Often, when you experience suffering or emotional distress on someone else’s behalf, it can get in the way of being altruistic.  

The form of empathy that always leads to altruism is called Empathic Concern.  According to psychologist Daniel Batson, it’s the only kind that is directed entirely toward the other person, instead of toward yourself.

“The eighth form, Empathic Concern consists of becoming aware of the other’s needs and then feeling a sincere desire to come to his or her aid.” – Mathieu Ricard

4. Selfishness Guarantees Unhappiness

“The love of my own self is inseparably connected with the love of any other self. Selfishness and self-love, far from being identical, are actually opposites.” – Erich Fromm

The opposite of an altruistic life is one focused only on yourself.  Going after what you want and disregarding the needs of others is often misunderstood as the path to success.  In fact, a life lived in this manner results in misery.

Behaving altruistically creates positive feelings in yourself, the person you’re helping, and anyone who witnesses the altruistic act.  Consistent altruism results in a steady hum of these moments throughout your daily life.  Across the board, you experience a greater sense of well-being and connectedness.

“The selfish person hopes to construct his personal happiness in the bubble of his ego. He says to himself basically, “It’s up to each of us to construct our own happiness. I’ll take care of mine, you take care of yours. I have nothing against your happiness, but it’s not my business.” The problem is that reality is quite otherwise: we are not autonomous entities and our happiness can only be constructed with the help of others.” – Mathieu Ricard

5. Rejoice In The Success of Others

Another way to guarantee unhappiness is by comparing yourself to others.  This leads to envying people who already have what you want.  With a few taps of your keyboard, you can see someone who is doing much better than you in any area of life.  

That attitude is short-circuited by rejoicing at the success of others.  With this mindset shift, you become joyful for their accomplishments and wish them all possible success in the future.  What used to be a source of negative emotion is now a fountain of positive feelings.

“This joy, appreciation and celebration are accompanied by the wish that their happiness and qualities never diminish, but persist and increase.  This ability to be pleased about the qualities of others also serves as an antidote to competitiveness, envy, and jealousy, all of which reflect an inability to rejoice in the happiness of others.” – Mathieu Ricard

The World Needs Altruism

I had no idea what Altruism truly was before reading this book.  It covers an incredibly wide range of topics, and every page is chock-full of wisdom.  In fact, all of the ideas above came from just the first 10% of the book!

Altruistic is the way we’re meant to be. That’s why we live in communities. We’re supposed to help others and make a positive impact in the world.  It’s more important now than ever to keep that in mind.

These days, social media turns us against each other. We’re bombarded with false ideas of what a successful life looks like. It’s more important now than ever to develop an attitude of altruism.

Altruism and compassion have the aim of spreading themselves as widely as possible. We must simply understand that our own well-being and the world’s cannot rest on indifference to the happiness of the other or on a refusal to care about the sufferings around us. – Mathieu Ricard

Joel Smith

Author and writing coach at The Fit Writer.

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