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How Being Selfless Can Impact Your Mental Health

By HERWriter
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being selfless can have an impact on mental health Jaimie Duplass/PhotoSpin

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. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

She said that in some cases, people can actually harm themselves or others if they engage in extreme altruistic behavior.

“Some people suffer from a deep sense of guilt and give to others as a subtle form of self-punishment or recompense,” Manes said. “For others, it might be a way of pushing their own personal agenda, often at the expense of others.”

“We have to be very honest about our own intentions and make sure that in giving to others we aren’t ultimately doing more harm than good,” she added.

Engaging in the right type of altruistic behavior can improve your sense of well-being, Manes said.

According to research, “people who give back to others lead more happy and healthy lives than those who do not volunteer.”

People with depression can also benefit from being selfless.

“Some of the reasons why this would be true are intuitive,” Manes said. “Giving to others gives us a chance to step outside our own stresses, to see a positive impact of our actions, to connect with other people who are suffering, and to engage in community.”

Mental health issues can make it difficult to see past feelings of hopelessness or racing thoughts, but she said if there is a small opening where symptoms are minimal, people with most mental disorders are still able to engage in selfless and altruistic behaviors.

Nicolle Ionascu, a clinical neuropsychologist, said in an email that people with mental health issues can be empathetic, but they might lack motivation to turn that empathy into selflessness.

“Selflessness improves overall mental health because it gives a sense of purpose and control,” Ionascu said. “In choosing to help someone, the individual asserts themselves and begins to realize that they have the power to shape the environment in a more positive way.”

Debra Kissen, the clinical director at Light on Anxiety Treatment Center, said in an email that she believes the more selfless behavior you engage in, the better you will feel, and in turn you will display even more altruistic behavior.

“Like a muscle, a quality of selflessness can be developed by engaging in small, steady acts of altruism,” Kissen said. “One can set a goal of engaging in at least one small and manageable act of selflessness each and every day.

“Like any new habit, it is always helpful to keep a daily log to track the new behavior and hold oneself accountable for its development,” she added.


Merriam-Webster. Altruism. Web. October 2, 2013.

Merriam-Webster. Selfless. Web. October 2, 2013.

Clark, Alicia. Email interview. September 18, 2013.

Manes, Stephanie. Email interview. September 18, 2013.

Ionascu, Nicolle. Email interview. September 18, 2013.

Kissen, Debra. Email interview. September 17, 2013.

Reviewed October 3, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.