Altruism is most commonly thought of as a selfless act that benefits the recipient. However, the science behind good deeds suggests that altruism isn't entirely selfless. In fact, some research suggests that helpers may gain more from their altruistic acts than recipients.
Although there certainly can be downsides to being an active and passionate helper (i.e., increased stress, risk of burnout, frustration), there is a growing body of research that suggests that the upsides of altruism may outweigh the negatives (particularly if helpers go into it being mindful of the risks and taking steps to protect themselves from compassion fatigue).
Here are just a few of the ways that altruism can improve your attitude and make you healthier, happier, and less stressed:
However, there is a caveat to all of this. Not everyone benefits from altruism. For example, for those who are already feeling overwhelmed by having too many things on their plate, adding more—even if the intentions are positive—is not likely to end well. This is particularly true for those individuals who have problems with time management.
Also, for those who tend to help the disadvantaged, it sometimes is that case that the sadness of the situations they get involved in has more of a negative than a positive impact on the helper. Some of this has to do with individual personalities, but a good rule of thumb for everyone is everything in moderation. Do what you can to help others, but be careful that you don't take on so much that it turns out that you become the one who needs help in the end.
Burnout among volunteers and those who work in helping professions is common. However, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, the risk can be lessened by being aware of the symptoms associated with burnout and compassion fatigue and by taking steps to take care of your own mental and physical health before trying to take care of others.
© 2014 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved
Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).