My last article focused on ways to become more selfless in your everyday life. Now you might be wondering how altruistic behavior can impact your mental health, mood and outlook on life. You can read my previous article here: How Can You Be More Selfless?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online defines selfless as “having or showing great concern for other people and little or no concern for yourself,” and altruism as “feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness.”
Alicia Clark, a licensed clinical psychologist, said in an email that she defines altruism and selflessness as a “capacity for empathy.”
“Empathy is the capacity to understand another's experience and convey that understanding in a way that makes a person feel understood,” Clark said. “It is a fundamental communication skill that helps deepen communication, understanding and bonding.”
She said that being selfless can improve mental health.
“Research shows that thinking about others can actually help people feel better,” Clark said.
“We don't quite know why this is, but in my work it appears that thinking about others can offer a welcome reprieve from internal suffering, and can help stretch people out of their symptoms in a way that is empowering.”
For people who are suffering from mental health issues, thinking of others can be much more difficult.
“Anxiety has a way of making people a bit myopic in their thinking, and preoccupied with the events happening in their life,” Clark said. “It can feel hard to think of others when things feel so hard internally.”
Stephanie Manes, a licensed clinical social worker, said in an email that the definitions of altruism and selflessness can be misleading and unattainable in the true sense.
For example, most people cannot be truly absent of self-interest (selflessness), and most people do not make personal sacrifices that are selfless (altruism), she said.
“Many of us engage in some form of altruism because it ultimately makes us feel better about our own lives,” Manes said.