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You are Hard-Wired for Altruism

January 21, 2010


Through the tragic events and natural disasters of the past decade we’ve seen  extraordinary outpourings of help and compassion for neighbors – and most important, strangers. Tragic events seem to galvanize our empathy and evoke great acts of kindness in response.

In the past decade we have also been the beneficiaries of valuable findings from research to better understand the motives for kindness and acts of compassion. Through this important work we’re coming to undersant that we are hard-wired for altruism.  The work of bioethicist Dr. Stephen Post’s Institute for Unlimited Love (Case Western University School of Medicine) alone has generated 50 studies on altruism, compassion and kindness.

Scientists call this the “helper’s high.”   When we give and engage in acts of kindness, the “pleasure” and social attachment centers of the brain are activated.

The classic definition of altruism is acting from a sense of selflessness. But is altruism solely an act that benefits the welfare of others?   That’s not what the research is demonstrating.

In fact, studies show that the “helper’s high” appears to act as an antidote to the stress response in the giver.  While it is too early in the research to understand all of the variables that may contribute to this, we can take comfort that when we act (genuinely) out of concern for others, we get a biological benefit as well.

“All the great spiritual traditions and the field of positive psychology are emphatic on this point – that the way to get rid of bitterness, anger, rage and jealousy is to do undo others in a positive way. It’s as though you somehow have to cast out negative emotions that are clearly associated with stress with the help of positive emotions.”                                               Dr. Stephen G. Post, PhD

While we don’t refer to any emotion as negative (we believe that all emotions can have value – it depends on what you do with them) we agree that we can cultivate more of these self -healing emotions in our lives.  (see earlier post: Intelligent Emotions – at Work)

Altruism in the Workplace?

But how does altruism work in the workplace?  While it may be a more natural reflex to give of one’s self at home, or through volunteerism or simply by writing a check to a cause – it may not be as easy to do where we work.

Some business theorists, in fact, still hold out that altruism and capitalism are incongruous. They suggest that the engine of competition that drives the marketplace requires a tougher and more adversarial emotional climate to thrive.  They believe that economic success still depends on a survival of the fitness ethos.  Of course, this is very much at odds with the management trends of the last twenty years which lean more (real or not) towards flattened hierarchies and team cultures

The reality is team oriented business cultures are not there yet. We talk teams and power sharing but still practice a sometimes ruthless form of competition.  We have little substantive experience of the power of workplace cultures based on empathy and egalitarian principles.  They are still referred to as “soft.”

So, while we are waiting for organizational structures to shift, it seems as if it is up to individuals to create the change they crave in the workplace. One by one, we can instill acts of kindness and altruism in our day to day life at work. Regardless of where you work, in large corporations or sitting alone with your computer, each day presents opportunities to act “selflessly.”

Much has been written about performing random acts of kindness (like leaving a big tip for a small check; giving up a parking space or buying someone a small gift for no reason). But when we act out of kindness and altruism towards our business colleagues we have the added benefit of contributing towards creating a more harmonious and trusting workplace culture

So – what can you do today, right now, where you work to demonstrate your altruism?

Can you compliment a colleague?

Can you listen to others and demonstrate your interest?

Can you offer your help even though your plate is full?

Can you give where you would normally expect to get?

The possibilities are endless. So are the benefits.

Thanks for being part of the conversation. 

Louise and George Altman

Intentional Communication Consultants

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2010 11:36 am

    Dear Louise and George,

    Nice piece; so relevant to the currents of the day.

    By the way did you know that the Dalai Lama meditates 4 hours everyday to develop his compassion. I agree we are hard wired and meditation of some kind will help the giving, caring, empathy muscles stay firm.

    • January 23, 2010 12:19 pm

      Dear Lynda,
      thanks for the compliment and the comment. No question that practice, even a few minutes a day builds up those “compassion” neural networks. In fact, we were just discussing the new Jeremy Rifkin book on empathy and civilization. In the book, Rifkin says now that we know what we know about mirror neurons and our hard wiring for cooperation and empathy, we will have to re-write the human story! So long survival of the fitness meme – hello survival of the kindest!
      Louise & George

  2. Dr. McClay permalink
    January 11, 2012 10:20 am

    “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

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