In American society, a lot of emphasis is placed on the idea of personal happiness. The pursuit of happiness is enshrined as an unalienable right in the Declaration of Independence. It is fundamental to how we see our place in the world and how the country runs. Tend to your own happiness, and that will lead to a healthy society and roaring economy.
But does this mean that helping others should be a secondary priority? Does your happiness need to come at the expense of others?
The good news is that there is no need for this simple binary. Helping others can actually make you happier and improve your general well being.
By helping others you help yourself
Scientific studies have shown that helping others is good for you, both physically and mentally. Volunteers at charitable organizations are less stressed and even live longer. Volunteers also report being happier and have lower rates of depression. It also just feels good.
To some, this very idea seems counterintuitive. If you are helping others to make yourself feel good, how can that be altruism?
However, this question creates an unfair dichotomy. You will be hard-pressed to find people who help others with the express purpose of “feeling good.” On the contrary, we choose to help people because it is in line with our values, it builds us up socially, and we enjoy it. There is nothing morally nefarious about it.
If you are looking for “true” altruism – i.e. helping others only for its own sake – you will never find it. But that does not diminish the importance of the act for those you are helping or for yourself.
Is giving always good?
There are exceptions, of course. When done in moderation, helping others benefits you and the world around you. However, altruism is unhealthy for certain personality types.
There are people who feel compelled to help others, as this is how they have learned to get validation. This is often the case for people whose parents depended on them and showed a kind of transactional love.
For these kinds of people, helping can become a compulsive act. This might not matter to the people receiving their help, but it makes it difficult for the individual to build a sense of self and healthy personal relationships.
Nonetheless, these cases do not diminish the very real benefits of helping others. In fact, helping others has such concrete benefits that service is a major part of 12 Step Programs for recovering addicts, helping them stay clean and sober.
Helping others can make you happier and healthier, both physically and mentally. It can be a part of your pursuit of individualism and happiness, serving you and the world around you.