Altruism and Wellbeing

Mental health and wellbeing expert, Alicia Drummond, is an adolescent psychotherapist, author, mother, and Founder of Teen Tips. Alicia discusses the true meaning of altruism and why it might be a good thing to cultivate for our wellbeing.

Simply put, altruism is behaving in ways which benefit another person but at a cost, or perhaps even a risk, to us. Giving your takeaway to a homeless person is altruistic behaviour - they benefit, and you go hungry. Emptying the dishwasher is an act of altruism because someone else gains time, but you lose it. If you get thanks for having done any of these things, then that is a bonus, but you did not set out to be rewarded.

Most of us like the idea of doing something nice for someone else, but it is only truly altruistic if we don't expect any personal gain. Helping someone with their homework because you want them to include you in their social circle is not altruism. Doing a favour for someone with the intention of asking for it to be repaid at some point further down the line, is not altruism. 

Is Altruistic Behaviour Something We are Born with or is it Something We Learn? 

Scientists who study evolution, including Darwin, argue that altruism is deeply ingrained in human nature because helping others and cooperation ensure the survival of our species. Neuroscience shows that when we act for the benefit of others, the reward part of our brain fires up and we get an endorphin hit like when we have eaten chocolate or taken exercise. True altruism benefits the giver as much as the receiver, which is why some people, including the Dalai Lama, have called it "selfish altruism". Being selfish, it would appear, is not always a bad thing!

According to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (Harvard University, 2020), people who give either their time or money to charity are 42% more likely to be happy than those who don't give. This is sometimes called the helper's high - think how it feels if you have ever given to charity or fundraised for a charity school event.

Empathy starts to develop from birth, and research shows that children become more altruistic as they become more empathetic. Toddlers who see someone in distress want to help, and they can feel distressed when they are prevented from doing so. 98% of all humans can show empathy so we are hard-wired for altruism.

But it can, and should be, something we continue to cultivate in our teens because altruistic behaviour benefits us all. Right now, there is so much sad and bad news around that it is perhaps easier to turn away rather than reach out, but when we help others, even in small ways, it makes them and us feel good. It is an easy win in a world where easy wins feel few and far between.

What could you do to make someone else's life that little bit better? There are many ways you can show kindness to others which, even without the expectation of something in return, may lead to more fulfilment in your own life.

Here are four ways you and your family can practice being altruistic:

  • Pay Someone a Compliment

Taking a few seconds to give someone a sincere compliment could literally make that person's day. Regardless of what the compliment is, by recognising an intrinsic part of someone's identity and giving them praise, you can increase that person's confidence and self-worth. Whether they always manage to make you laugh and you acknowledge that, or they are incredibly thorough in their work or are a good listener, highlighting those qualities will make them feel good about themselves and could even stick with them for years to come.

  • Spend Quality Time with Others

Spending time with friends and family is one of the most generous gifts you can give, not only for them but also for us. Social support and regular human connection can help to improve mental and physical health, boosting mood and lowering stress levels. FaceTiming a grandparent or sending an email or text to a lonely relative, could make their day.

  • Perform a Random Act of Kindness Every Week

The act of giving not only feels good, but it is also good for you. Whether your acts of kindness are anonymous or visible, big, or small, even the simplest acts will help to brighten someone's day. Although this may take a little practice, the more it becomes ingrained in your routine, the happier you can make others feel and, in turn, you will feel. Win-win! It may also encourage others to pay it forward, improving wellbeing all round.

  • Volunteer Your Skills

This links back to giving the gift of time. Dedicating your time to a cause that has a special meaning to you can be hugely rewarding and fulfilling. If you have a love of animals, why not volunteer at an animal shelter? Or if time isn't something you have much of to give, think of alternative ways to contribute to a charity or cause that is important to you or has benefitted a loved one in a time of need. Volunteering not only benefits the greater good but can also help to increase your feelings of purpose and worth. As well as making a difference to someone else's life, it can help to increase your self-belief, self-confidence, and self-esteem.


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Simon-Thomas, E. (2012). The Cooperative Instinct. Retrieved 26 November 2020, from

Hepach, R., Vaish, A., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Young Children Are Intrinsically Motivated to See Others Helped - Robert Hepach, Amrisha Vaish, Michael Tomasello, 2012. Retrieved 27 November 2020, from