Bridging the gap between two seeming opposites — egoism and altruism, between concern for oneself and concern for others — is easier than you might think. We have been designed to care about other people, and consequently that we enjoy helping others. In fact, contributing to other people’s welfare is one of the most powerful sources of meaning in life.
The fact that we derive joy and meaning, both pleasure and a sense of purpose, from caring for others is innate. New York University psychologist Martin Hoffman and other researchers point to the existence of empathic inclinations from the time we are born. In most of us, as we mature into adulthood, this inclination naturally develops into full-fledged empathy towards others. Empathy is the primary moral sentiment, the emotion that enables individuals to survive and thrive as a collective. In the words of Hoffman: “Empathy is the spark of human concern for others, the glue that makes social life possible”.
Empathy, though, is not merely about a passive concern for others. Being an emotion, empathy also inspires motion (i.e. an active concern for others). This active concern manifests itself as generosity — the desire to help other people, to contribute to their wellbeing. And through our empathic connection to others, when we are generous towards them and increase their wellbeing — either by reducing their pain or increasing their pleasure — we increase our own well-being and imbue our life with a sense of meaning.
More and more research is showing just how much personal benefit is derived through being generous. For example, a study conducted by Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia showed that those who were given money and gave it to others enjoyed a larger increase in their levels of happiness than those who spent the same amount of money on themselves. A generous act, therefore, can be perceived as altruistic — if by altruistic we mean helping others — as well as egoistic — if by egoistic we mean helping ourselves. If on the other hand, we see egoism and altruism as antonyms, as irreconcilable opposites, then a generous act can be neither.
The relationship between helping others and helping ourselves is not restricted to the former contributing to the latter. The relationship works in the opposite direction as well: when we help ourselves to feel better we are more likely to be generous towards others. Research by Alice Isen and her colleagues at Cornell University shows that when people are made to feel good — even by trivial means such as finding a dime in a phone booth — they are more likely to help others.
What we end up with is a self-reinforcing loop between helping others and helping our self — in that the more generous we are (the more we help others) the better we feel (the more we help our self), the better we feel the more likely we are to be generous, and so on. If you are curious to learn more on the power of gratitude, you can watch my latest video on this topic by clicking here.
This upward spiral of generosity which relies on the natural interrelationship between self and others clearly demonstrates that the egoism-altruism divide is unfounded. When I help myself, my capacity for generosity is significantly amplified — the benefit to others is real. At the same time, when I help others, I am, also, being selfish — the benefit to my wellbeing is real. In fact, there is so much benefit to the person who contributes to others that I often think that there is no more selfish act than a generous act.