Many psychological therapies focus on reducing negative thoughts, and engaging in pleasant and healthy behaviours in order to enhance wellbeing. Modern Western society generally focuses on encouraging people to find answers to the questions ‘what makes you happy?’ and ‘how can you get your needs met?’
A broad survey of the media would indicate that the answers to these questions involve hobbies, relationships, physical beauty, acquiring good quality products, taking holidays and relaxing, perhaps at a day spa or a weekend getaway. Communicating your needs effectively and considerately is another way of ensuring that your interactions with others are positive and rewarding. Whilst doing these things can be very helpful for enhacing wellbeing, one area that is often neglected by psychologists and the media is altruism – engaging in acts of kindness that, in a practical sense, solely benefit others.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that one of the most significant ways to improve one’s wellbeing and life satisfaction is to engage in acts of kindness and prosocial behaviour. The message of the following video is a powerful indicator as to how this can be psychologically beneficial:
A study on a group of multiple sclerosis patients showed that those who offered peer support to other patients actually experienced greater benefits than their supported peers in the areas of confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, mood and overall daily functioning. Additionally, other studies have shown that acts of kindness can activate the brain region associated with enhanced mood, as well as increasing feelings of connectedness, enhanced life satisfaction and optimism, and reduced anxiety.
Humans are social beings – we have evolved to exist as members of families and tribes. Historically and currently, the greater our social support network is, the less vulnerable and more satisfied we are. Unfortunately, Australia’s individualistic culture is characterised by decreased unity within families, friendship groups and cultural groups. People often move away from their families and childhood friendship groups in favour of pursuing career goals, higher paying jobs and other personal interests. More and more, we tend to outsource family assistance in the forms of aged care facilities and childcare centres in order to maintain career progression. In these and other ways, our society tends to place more importance on an individual’s personal pursuits and feelings than on serving the needs of members of the groups they have belonged to throughout life.
Although there are many benefits to this shift in values, such as increased freedom to choose a career path, place of residence, life partner and leisure activities, the cost has been a decreased obligation to engage in acts of service that improve the lives of those around us, but that do little to service our own practical needs. On the surface, this increased choice may seem to be an improvement on past lifestyles, where family and cultural obligations restricted the options available to people. In theory, being able to choose one’s own way without being tied to others should lead to greater happiness – or does it?
One common complaint of those who experience psychological distress and seek professional support is having a lack of meaning or life purpose. Many of these clients struggle with depression and anxiety, whilst also having nice cars, a career path they chose themselves, comfortable salaries, good physical health and an abundance of opportunity to dine out and engage in enjoyable cultural activities.
Western society tends to tell us that having these things will lead to greater happiness, however, research shows that when we engage in activities that benefit others and are in line with our values, these activities tend to have the greatest impact on our sense of happiness, engagement and satisfaction. They can lead to having richer relationships with a wider variety of people and a more open mind. They can lead to a greater sense of self-worth and an awareness that our actions actually do make a positive difference in the lives of others. Although acts of altruism practically do little to benefit the individual, they do a lot to foster a sense of community, belonging and value – which are feelings that money cannot buy.