Doing good? Altruism and wellbeing in an age of austerity

Altruism means caring about other people and acting in someone else’s interest. We may be acting altruistically whenever we offer someone our seat on the bus, make a cup of tea for a work colleague, donate money to a famine relief fund, or comfort a friend in distress.

The desire to do good deeds for other people is natural and deep-rooted, but often misunderstood. Evolutionary biologists, sociologists and philosophers have tried to comprehend why we act in this way, particularly if we do something for another person which is against our own interest.

Ultimately, altruism is a mystery we have yet to solve. We do not know whether actions such as helping others, sharing, caring for others, volunteering and donating are wholly selfless or whether they are rooted in self-interest. Our motives may be a mixture of the two.

Helping other people and engaging in these kinds of prosocial behaviour has many advantages. It can improve our social relationships, give our lives new purpose, show us other perspectives on our own problems, improve the chances of others reciprocating our good deed, and make us more attractive to the opposite sex. Helping others may even produce a sense of euphoria akin to the sensation we get when eating good food.

Doing good? Altruism and wellbeing in an age of austerity report cover

We have probably all met people who seem selfish and others who seem helpful beyond reason. Being at an extreme of selfishness or selflessness can cause problems both for the individual and those around them. Being too selfish can lead to isolation and poor social relationships, whereas being too selfless can lead to overburden and stress. We are each responsible for our approach to helping others.

There are simple, spontaneous ways in which anyone can act selflessly, such as holding a door open for a stranger. There are also structured, more time consuming ways of helping others, such as volunteering for a charity or becoming part of a Time Banking scheme (where you give an hour of your time in exchange for an hour of someone else’s time). Evidence suggests that people, particularly older people, can gain a great deal from formal volunteering, which can reduce social isolation and improve health.

In a 2012 national opinion survey we asked 2,037 people how they felt about acts of kindness such as being helpful or volunteering. The majority (76%) agreed with the statement that society had become more selfish and materialistic, and 67% thought people were less likely to be kind to strangers than 10 years ago.

The results of the poll also suggest that people still ‘do good’ on a regular basis; 83% said that they held a door open for a stranger in the past week, 72% had let someone go ahead of them in a queue, and 33% had volunteered time or resources to help someone else. The vast majority also said that they felt good after being kind (87%) and that being kind had a positive influence on their health (80%).

Despite the problems that our society faces, there are things we can all do for others that can improve the world we live in. We recommend that:

  • Schools, nurseries and playgroups encourage acts of kindness, peer support and a culture of volunteering from childhood. These should be embedded into existing citizenship activities and mental health promotion programmes. Schools, universities and colleges should encourage children and young people to volunteer in local communities as part of curriculum activity.
  • Employers promote mentally healthy workplaces through encouraging altruistic activities at work, they should also recognise the role of peer mentoring schemes and volunteering programmes with regards to workforce development.
  • Voluntary sector organisations support people who are approaching retirement. This support should aim to redefine people’s identities so that they can continue to see themselves as contributing members of the community.
  • Commissioners of services aiming to support vulnerable groups should invest in volunteering and peer support services. This is relevant to socially isolated groups such as older people, people with mental health problems, people with learning disabilities, those with physical disabilities and long term illnesses. Supporting people to contribute may result in reciprocal community support networks being developed.
  • Government prioritise investment in third sector organisations designed to promote volunteering and Time Banks. These organisations need to be supported to create further opportunities for those most isolated to contribute. Training for voluntary sector staff should be provided to help people engage with potential volunteers who may require additional support.

What are the health benefits of altruism?

There is some evidence to suggest that when you help others, it can promote physiological changes in the brain linked with happiness.

Kindness and mental health

In 2020, we found that 63% of UK adults agree that when other people are kind it has a positive impact on their mental health, and the same proportion agree that being kind to others has a positive impact on their mental health.

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