It is fairly well established that altruism benefits the giver as well as the recipient. And also that religious beliefs and practices are likely to promote altruism.
It turns out it isn’t quite that simple. But very interesting.
In a recent article (Helping others might feel good, but is it really good for you?), philosopher T Ryan Byerly confirms that research findings suggest that “when you act altruistically …. it’s not only beneficial to those you are helping, but it also rebounds and benefits you psychologically and physically too, improving your health and increasing your lifespan.”
But he goes on to outline new research that shows that some types of altruism work better than others. “There are different motivations driving people’s altruism, and these different reasons vary in their consequences.”
What doesn’t work so well
Psychologists have identified a bunch of associated traits that are related to depression, anxiety and stress.
- Unmitigated communion: People who have a low opinion of themselves and worry how others see them may disregard their own needs and instead become obsessively involved with helping others. Thus their behaviour is altruistic, but it is based on worry and out of their own need for approval. Thus they experience stress.
- Trait neuroticism: This is a personality trait characterised by sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability. These people tend to experience mood swings, anxiety, irritability, and sadness.
- Poor self-differentiation: People who are able to maintain their sense of self, identity, thoughts, and emotions when emotionally or physically close with others are said to have self differentiation. “People low in self-differentiation have a difficult time balancing intimacy and autonomy in close relationships, and are highly emotionally reactive to others’ experiences, finding it difficult to remain calm when others’ emotions are heightened.”
So altruism motivated by, or associated with, these character traits is much less likely to be personally beneficial because the person is acting out of their psychological distress and need and an unhealthily low view of themselves. They are likely acting from a place of worry, getting overly involved, or feeling they can’t be happy without taking control for the other person.
Others-centredness is another psychological trait that leads to altruism. But here putting others ahead of oneself comes from a feeling of positive self worth which feels happier when benefitting others because this fosters positive relationships with them. These people are not controlling or anxious, but simply happy to seek another person’s good.
Others-centred people tend to be more forgiving, kind, fair, honest, empathetic, more altruistic and more agreeable. Unlike those experiencing unmitigated communion, others-centred people tend to be more satisfied and experience more meaning in their lives, and they’re better able to cope with stress.
Religion and altruism
It turns out that religious beliefs and practices tend to have positive impacts on several personality traits relevant to altruism. However forms of religion that have a negative view of God are more likely to be associated with neuroticism.
Therefore it seems likely that religious believers who are dependent on God’s approval of their behaviour, and are seeking to avoid God’s anger, are more likely to be unhealthily altruistic, whereas believers who act out of confidence in God’s love for them are more likely to the others-centred and hence more healthily altruistic.
Photo by RODNAE Productions