The word altruism floated into my mind this morning. I decided to look up the meaning because it is one of those words that seems to hang out on the periphery of the English language rather than inserting itself into our daily vocabulary. I have an app on my phone that gathers definitions from multiple sources. The definitions are, for the most part, similar but the variations help me gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of most words. Such was the case when I looked up altruism.
Collins English Dictionary gave a definition of altruism as “the philosophical doctrine that right action is that which produces the greatest benefit to others.” This was the one that resonated most for me because it was the only one that affiliated altruism with right action.
American Heritage Dictionary described altruism as the “unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.” This definition, combined with a focus on right action makes for a powerful statement about what I consider to an be innate, human characteristic- altruism.
I’m sure there are those who would argue that right action is a learned behavior, but I believe we all have a sense of what is right when it comes to our ongoing human interactions. If this theory is correct, then perhaps we learn to avert our eyes and ignore the obvious when it comes to the problems of the world such as world hunger and poverty.
Circumstances Are A Powerful Motivator
Perhaps our own survival instinct trumps altruism as we think we have enough on our plates and we cannot give of ourselves, our financial resources or our time without putting ourselves in the same boat as those we might want to help. Or, maybe we allow ourselves to assume that someone else is already taking care of the problem, as we focus on our own circumstances around the reality of poor wages, long work hours and uncaring employers.
If we are not hungry it is easier to forget that there are millions of people who are hungry. If we are comfortable and content it is easier to forget that there are those who are suffering. And, for those of us who can afford to be philanthropic, the opportunities to help without getting our hands dirty abound as writing a check becomes a “feel good” exercise.
Any of these considerations circumvent the definition that resonated for me – taking right action. Yes, the father who can barely pay the bills and keep a roof over his family’s head should not be expected to contribute financially to help others. Yes, it is important that those who can finance charitable endeavors that help others, do so. But it is also important that we take right action, especially as we recognize that there are times when helping others doesn’t detract to a great degree from our own survival.
It is our natural instinct to help others. Studies have shown that we naturally want to help others, that we feel better and live richer lives when we are altruistic. More and more, research suggests that practicing altruism enhances our personal well-being – emotionally, physically, financially and even romantically.
I read a story recently about a man who was homeless for many months before he got his life back on track. He was interviewed outside a pizzeria in Philadelphia after he had paid a dollar for a homeless person get a slice of pizza. He said he remembered how if felt when someone helped him in his time of need and he felt compelled to help someone else now that he can. This is altruism. This is right action.
It is time for all of us to look around and notice what is happening in our world. It is time to listen with our hearts and take right action because altruism is our innate calling. It is time to leave ego at the door and look beyond ourselves to determine where we can be of service.
Visit sourceimperative.com for more information on altruism.