What Makes a Hero?

The surprising science of selflessness

Altruism as Enlightened Self-Interest

Do we help others because we enjoy it?

One perk of writing about heroism and altruism is that you meet so many remarkable people who change the way you look at the world. While researching my book, I spoke with extreme altruist Christoph von Toggenburg, who has devoted his life to others in a variety of ways—from raising money for homeless Romanian children to biking across Europe and Asia to help leprosy sufferers.

I went into our conversation assuming von Toggenburg had incredible willpower, that he was able to maintain laser focus on his altruistic mission even when he didn't feel like it. But what he actually said surprised me: He goes to great lengths to help others mostly because he enjoys it so much. He doesn't think altruists should view themselves as martyrs who sacrifice the good things in life for others' benefit—that approach, he says, isn't sustainable. “If I would only do something for others, it would drain my energy very quickly,” he told me. “The energy comes when there's something in it for you.”

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University of Winnipeg psychologist Jeremy Frimer’s research supports von Toggenburg's suggestion that altruism is often a win-win proposition. Frimer studied a group of people who devoted themselves to helping others and compared them with a group of control participants. While the lifelong altruists were highly concerned with others' well-being, as might be expected, their generosity also brought them great personal satisfaction. Frimer calls this marriage of self- and other-oriented motives “enlightened self-interest.”

Such enlightened self-interest is part of what allows people like von Toggenburg to sustain their contributions for years on end. If helping people is truly a drag, something you want to get through before moving on to something else, it’s going to be tough to stay generous unless you have boundless willpower. But if you look forward to bonding with high school mentees on the weekends because you genuinely enjoy their company, getting up at 7 am for volunteer meetings will seem far less onerous. “The best way to increase altruistic acts might be to rely on a self-interested motive,” says Georgetown philosopher Judith Lichtenberg. “This is Aristotle's idea—to get people to want to do those things.”

Von Toggenburg has learned that most people are happy to be generous when they find fulfillment in it. To cut expenses in running his Colour the World foundation, which benefits leprosy victims and others in need, he's recruited Price Waterhouse Coopers employees to provide administrative services for free. While they might not be getting monetary payment, they get the reward of knowing they're contributing to a large-scale humanitarian effort. “It doesn't cost them that much time, but it makes them feel good,” he says. “They have the satisfaction: ‘We have contributed to some good cause.’”

It's that sense of deep satisfaction that makes some altruists “lifers”: They're so steeped in the joy that comes from helping others that they can't imagine doing anything else. Von Toggenburg feels responsible for his fellow humans' welfare, but he also sees the altruistic life as the happiest kind of life there is. “You arrive at your own satisfaction and your own motivation. The more you have little successes, the more you will be encouraged to step up. We make such a big deal out of it, but it can be so simple.”

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer living in San Jose, CA. Her first book, What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, comes out in September.

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