The paradox of altruism

Altruism is the selfless concern for the well-being of others. By definition altruism must be free of self-interest. Zoologists go so far as to define it as the behaviour of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.

Having established that, let us look at the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’ – a phrase that is enshrined in the American constitution, and resonates with us so naturally. Every person on this world, consciously or unconsciously, makes every decision because they believe that it would result in a happier future. The brilliant Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist who studies happiness, states that the word ‘living’ and the pursuit of happiness are synonymous.

Gilbert also talks about how altruism is very effective in making us happier – something that each one of us can attest to, and is supported by research. Humans are likely to be selfish if left to their devices, but are happier if they are forced to be altruistic. Altruism trumps even individual freedom – the exalted religion of our humanistic times.

Hence, if altruism makes people happier, which is every person’s reason for living, the paradox here is that altruism can never be free from self-interest.

This leads me to two interesting conclusions – a practical action and a thought exercise.

The practical action is to find out ways to force ourselves to be more altruistic. One way this could be achieved is by setting aside a budget for giving every month (could be time or money), and think of ways to actively meet it month after month. It is my hunch that doing this actively rather than passively would be more fruitful.

The thought exercise is to think of a nation built on an ideal that priorities altruism over personal freedom, and consider ways in which this nation would function differently from today’s democracies. I’ll be grateful for any ideas here.

Credits: To Daniel Gilbert and his book, Stumbling on Happiness. Check out his interesting interview here.


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