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Altruism: finding sources of motivation

By - Dec 19, 2011 - Category Practice - Print Print - Version française

After reading the interview with Bahram Elahi on altruism on this website, I was struck by the idea that “Those who care about their process of perfection should include the practice of altruism in their spiritual program”. In my first post, I tried to understand what altruism really was and how to tackle this practice in a daily program. Now I would like to explore the second half of the question: why practice altruism?

What I have discovered by working on this point and by trying to experiment altruism, is that this practice turns out to be highly beneficial—particularly to oneself. One could say in a somewhat provocative way that with altruism you can turn a profit! It is of course quite paradoxical to choose to begin a discussion of altruism from this perspective. Shouldn’t an altruistic action by definition be disinterested, carried out with the sole intention to accomplish your duty as a human being and/or to seek God’s satisfaction? Ideally, we should be altruistic for the sake of being altruistic; here I am, however, talking about profit.

In reality, my goal is to find sources of motivation for those who, like myself, are not spontaneously altruistic. Of course those for whom altruism is a second nature do not need any motivation: they have, for a long time already, grasped the benefits of that virtue.

Altruism, a profitable practice

After practicing for several months I have come to the following conclusions:

Practicing altruism makes you feel better.

It is stating the obvious but worth repeating and being taken seriously: life in an altruistic society is better than in an individualistic society!

Aurélie’s experience: I was leaving on a trip, carrying a big suitcase and a bag and there I was in the subway—totally alone. I was surrounded by people, but no one paid any attention to me. And I was in a real mess: my arm got stuck in the turnstile, I was in excruciating pain trying to get down an escalator that was out of order, and then no one could indicate the right direction to the trains and the electronic postings weren’t working… That day I understood how much we could all gain from a more altruistic society.

Practicing altruism brings joy—or at least makes you happier.

You need only open a positive psychology—or even self-help—book to see that altruism is cited as one of the key factors to happiness. Practicing altruism is even at times recommended as a remedy for depression. Further research on this question led me to read practical psychological books again such as Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. Recommended exercises included “practice spontaneous generosity, learn to listen, be the first to lend a helping hand, etc.”. The conclusion was always the same: even if the other person is not very receptive toward your gesture, at least you have contributed to making the world a more gentle place and you are at peace with yourself, which is good for you in the first place.

To convince yourself that being an altruist can lead to happiness, just think back to past opportunities you have had to be of service to someone and remember the feeling you had, often a mixture of pride and joy, and in any case, a feeling of inner warmth, the feeling of having done “the right thing”.

Being altruistic, attentive and kind toward others makes us happier because it enables us to direct our attention away from ourselves and to be more generally positive. Then, being altruistic draws the sympathies of others and that is another way of finding happiness.

Beyond all of these considerations, however, it seems to me that it is the feeling of having acted humanely, as a true human being, that makes the person happy. What causes this inner feeling of joy and well-being, is the fulfillment of a deep impulse of the soul (as opposed to the deep impulses of our ego, upon which we act most of the time); it is the satisfaction of an ethical impulse—one of the elements, along with free-will, that makes up our humanity. There is real happiness in responding to our impulses to do good, to rise to our humane dimension. One must experience it to grasp the joy and feeling of having acted in conformity with one’s true nature.

If the mere perspective of happiness is not enough to tempt the undecided and to provide them with further sources of motivation, I will go so far as to say that practicing altruism makes the world a more beautiful place! When meeting people for the first time, I tend to instinctively judge them on their physical appearance. However, since I have started practicing altruism, this aesthetic perception has grown inseparable from the appreciation of personality traits, to the point where the moral qualities take precedence over the physical qualities. Today I find those people pleasant whose human qualities I value, whom I see as “good people”.

Yet all of this is secondary for those who care about their process of perfection. Indeed, from that perspective, the most crucial and interesting thing is that by striving to become an altruist, you perfect yourself spiritually.

Altruism, a condition for spiritual perfection

Practicing altruism is at the heart of natural spirituality. Setting out on this practice inevitably faces you with a salutary confrontation with certain obstacles. Developing altruism involves developing a whole range of moral qualities known as the qualities of the heart: kindness, generosity, listening to others, being attentive to others, being affectionate, etc. And in order to develop these qualities of the heart, concretely, it is necessary to struggle against a wide range of weaknesses, most particularly egoism and pride.

An opportunity to struggle against one’s weaknesses

  • Against egoism

If I care about the well-being of others, if I sacrifice some of my time or money for their sake, that time and money is obviously not spent on myself. In that respect I am struggling against my egoism. But egoism can manifest itself in all sorts of forms.

Caroline’s experience: I wanted to do something for a friend of mine whom I see regularly and I decided to buy her a bouquet of flowers. My action was truly selfless at first; I just wanted to make her happy. But once I was in the store, my ego (a form of egoism tainted with stinginess) launched an attack: “you really shouldn’t spend too much money; think of all your expenses this month; there is no particular occasion; etc.” Then, all of a sudden, while I had been looking at the bouquets I found most beautiful, I started to look also at those I found most economical. The fact is that I ended up choosing a bouquet I found pretty shabby by the time I got to my friend’s house, as if it was marked by my stinginess. My friend was extremely pleased, but I knew very well that my gesture was not as thoughtful as it seemed. To compensate, I made a point the following times to choose the most beautiful flowers without taking price into account anymore. I learned from this experience that egoism (manifested here as stinginess) can spoil a good gesture intended to make someone happy.

In this example, egoism manifests itself as stinginess, however egoism and egocentrism are also the cause when we don’t want to take the time to listen to someone who needs to confide in us, when we don’t offer a colleague to take her home because it would be a detour for us and we are tired and in a hurry to get home. Indeed, for every altruistic action there is an egotistic counter-impulse against which it is necessary to struggle.

Another considerable opponent: pride

  • Against pride

As mentioned above, the true altruist is disinterested and never expects anything in return for any gesture. There are indeed at least two traps set by pride.

The first is to expect recognition in the form of a thank you or a gesture of gratitude. The experiment is easy to test: when driving, try and let a pedestrian or another car pass without expecting any sign of thanks. I must admit I have caught myself grumbling about the incredible indifference of people in such situations! This simple exercise in “disinterestedness” can be adapted to all sorts of situations, such as for example letting someone take one’s seat in the subway without any expectations of thanks or acknowledgment. I noticed that practicing in such trivial situations made it easier to manage my pride when it came to more significant acts of altruism. It is necessary to experiment and struggle over time.

The second trap pride can set and which is perhaps even more subtle, is the feeling that we are essential to others. When we try to be altruistic, we may begin to believe that others really need us, and at the same time, that we are quite important and superior to them. True altruists however are humble and discreet; they don’t brag about their good deeds and don’t seek to gain any prestige. Even in their own eyes. I have noticed that when I do someone a service I have a tendency to want to talk about it, to let people know, to brag a little. Pride quickly tries to appropriate the good deed. A good exercise to combat this tendency is not to tell anyone about the good deeds one has done.

An opportunity to sharpen one’s thought

The practice of altruism of course requires—as do all practices in natural spirituality—common sense and reflection. As every situation requires appropriate and specific response, practicing altruism is also the occasion to sharpen one’s reason. The practice must be contextual, reasoned and balanced with regard to the different rights at hand and all the analytical work that needs to be done towards that end contributes to the process of our spiritual perfection.

At another level, and perhaps more subtly, it may be argued that being altruistic amounts to participating in God’s work. One could go so far as to say that altruism brings “God’s grace.”

Altruism and God’s work

Behaving well toward others, being kind and generous: aren’t such behaviours the surest ways to act in accordance with divine satisfaction? “To want well for others and to do well onto others” is indeed a principle common to all religions. Putting this principle into practice while seeking in one’s heart to come closer to God creates the rare sensation of “being on the divine wavelength”. By practicing altruism in that way, we gain the certainty that God is content with us, which is very motivating.

Back to reality: The problem is that even if we are convinced of the importance and the relevance of altruism, putting it into practice often proves very difficult. We are overcome by a form of inertia. Practicing altruism requires considerable effort from us, for we need to go against our deeply ingrained tendency to seek our own well-being, our own comfort. For example, we have to get up from our chair to go get someone a cup of coffee, sacrifice our break to listen to someone tell us about their problems, forego sleeping in on a Saturday morning to help a friend move, go to bed an hour late to give a ride to an acquaintance or colleague who lives at the other end of town and who missed the last subway. Sometimes even—heaven knows why—it seems to require special effort to achieve something as simple as reaching for a pen or a tissue in one’s bag when someone needs it…

There is only one way out of such passive resistance: ACTION!

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  1. DC Dec 19, 2011 7:36 am 1

    Very great points. Thank you for your meaningful experiment. No harm comes from altruism, but you sure do gain a lot of benefits. I like how you mentioned that it can sharpen one’s thought, that makes a lot of sense and reading that part especially helped me truly absorb the benefits.

  2. A. Dec 21, 2011 8:48 am 2

    It is by “chance” that an E-mail informing me about this article landed in my gmail account just as I was in a state of confusion, wondering (and asking for God’s help) about what course of action to undertake in a situation which really did not seem straightforward at the time.

    The state of confusion was the result of some “bad” news, I had just received from my wife, whereby she informed me that 2 young nephews (aged 5 and 7), notoriously very active, where going to join my three children (aged 2-10) for a couple of days, during the Christmas vacation, in our small apartment.

    When I got the news the apartment seemed extremely small, and the children far too active to be able to survive the Christmas… though, as time went by and as I read the article, the whole situation looked more reasonable and once again I noticed how my imperious self (egoism) warped reality. Having overcome the hallucinations of the imperious self I now see things under a different light and although getting the 5 pests to behave will be somewhat challenging I now look at this situation more as an opportunity to work on altruism and make them and especially my wife happy.

    So yes, I do confirm !! Egoism is a major obstacle when working on altruism.

    When working on altruism it is also important to closely pay attention to one’s intention. I too have found pride to be a major flaw that undermines our attempts at being disinterested. For example, since I travel a lot and often by taxi, I have taken the habit to engage drivers by asking them questions and talking to them during the trips. Recently, as I was travelling in a taxi and as I made a short comment on how the buildings we were driving past looked shabby and were architecturally not in line with the rest of city, the driver aggressed me repeatedly expressing his disagreement. Faced with such virulence I heard myself telling him to take it easy and that I was talking just to keep him company, to please him (implying that I was offended by his reaction and that I really could not care less about talking to him). My wrong intention was thus debunked because had I had a good intention (to please the Source and not the driver) I would not have been affected by the driver’s reaction.

  3. wire Dec 22, 2011 1:04 am 3


    Thanks for these very practical examples…they hit home!!

  4. mahin afshin Dec 22, 2011 6:21 pm 4

    I learned a new word in English for “unselfish”, “concern for the welfare of others”, “selflessness”, etc. All these meanings tell us we need to practice in order to reach our goal of humanity and more.

  5. FK Dec 27, 2011 9:36 am 5

    Great article, very interesting points mentioned! Just a few minutes before reading this article, I was struggling with myself about my behavior toward my sister, who happens to live with me for a while, and I had started to think that maybe I am going too far in some aspects and I need to slow down and think a little more about myself and my own needs! Reading the article reminded me of that selfish part of me, the ego, and its egoistic demands, the ones that make me hesitate to do good. I really need to practice, act, and repeat…

  6. Nov Dec 28, 2011 12:32 pm 6

    Thanks a lot for posting this article 🙂
    It was excellent examples and very useful exercises (Specially the ones for “Against Pride”)

  7. Olga Dec 29, 2011 5:36 pm 7

    A friend of mine told me today that she was going to move some of her things back to her old appartement and even though I had this article in the back of my mind, I let my selfishness tell me that she probably did not need my help, so I did not even ask her. After a few hours I went in here and read the article again, and before finishing it I called my friend and asked if she will need any help and she happily said yes. How easy it is to trick ourselves and fall into a selfish sleep, so thank you for this article!

  8. holly Dec 30, 2011 11:33 pm 8

    This article has seriously moved me – I feel more encouraged and motivated to be kind both in the way I talk to people, approach them and most importantly treat them . I’m generally not a unkind or rude character [ well at least i like to think so ! ] but this article has made me realize that I need to be kind to not so much those that I like or are easy to reach ! but also to those who are more difficult to help and those who may appreciate it less!
    I seriously – have started to make few steps towards being kinder – I just hope that I will remember the true reason as to why I need to make this change.

  9. Eileen Jan 03, 2012 11:28 pm 9

    Thank you for this most excellent article and comments! To me, it is most significant knowing that practicing altruism will remedy feelings of depression. Additionally, the Imperious Self tells me I am being selfish to want to practice altruism because I really only want to feel the positive benefits. This article has greatly helped me to realize that I must not let my Imperious Self fool me with warped reasoning. And, yes, my ego and pride are so active and powerful in persuading me not to practice various good deeds. I must practice altruism.

  10. Smith5000123 Jan 04, 2012 12:34 am 10

    I’m simply appalled. Is it not reward enough to do that which is right and just? You should not need any motivation, other than the knowledge that you just made the world better. Alas, such shall never be the case in today’s selfish world. For me, however, I am satiated with the knowledge that I made a difference in the world.

  11. Johnny Jan 05, 2012 4:26 am 11

    @Smith5000123: As the author has prefaced, “Ideally, we should be altruistic for the sake of being altruistic”. I think it requires a certain education of thought to even discern that which is right and just. Once we act upon an altruistic intention, the reaction generated is “an inner feeling of joy and well-being”. Is this not perhaps the same as feeling satiated with the knowledge that we have made the world better? Even when we simply wish to ‘feel’ or ‘know’ the effects of altruistic actions, isn’t it possible that we have some degree of self-interest in acquiring that knowledge?

    However, I don’t believe that is necessarily wrong, because if the cultivation of virtues is a gradual process, then it seems reasonable that we require some intermediate stage between pure selfishness and “altruism out of a sense of compassion and love for others”. From what I understand, this article intends to address so many of us who require help in reaching this ideal stage by identifying how the practice of altruism also has a positive effect on ourselves – just as we might be motivated to perform better at work to achieve a bonus, or children might be further encouraged by rewards from their parents for good behaviour.

    I would recommend the following interview, which explains more thoroughly – and far better than I am able to – the deeper concepts and development of this virtue through practice: http://www.e-ostadelahi.com/eoe-en/altruism-an-interview-with-bahram-elahi-m-d/

  12. Dr. McClay Jan 11, 2012 8:22 pm 12

    “Altruism is an exalted human feeling, and its source is love. Whoever has the greatest share in this love is the greatest hero of humanity; these people have been able to uproot any feelings of hatred and rancor in themselves.” (Fethullah Gulen)
    Fethullah Gulen
    Fethullah Gulen News

  13. Smith5000123 May 10, 2012 5:47 am 13

    Thanks for recommending that article. It was fascinating. Anyway, as for what you said about possible alternative motives: I help people without thinking. I don’t weigh out how it will benefit me in any way. Spiritually speaking, I already feel completely fulfilled, so I do not even help people for that reason. I help people simply to help people.

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