Altruism is when you help someone without conditions. It is the opposite of greed and selfishness. This unconditional care and support goes toward creating a pool of goodwill that anyone can dip into in times of need. It might be volunteering at a school working bee, helping a stranger who has tripped over or needs his car pushed, helping a lost child find her parents, or protesting against social injustice even when you are not a victim of it. All of these selfless acts of kindness and understanding help build trust, solidarity, security and social well-being in general. If we want the right to feel safe and secure and to feel that help will be there when we need it, we are responsible to add our bit to the pool of goodwill.
In traditional societies, this is still the way. For example, with the Amish in America or the Arapesh tribes in Papua New Guinea, if someone has a problem then everyone has a problem. A strong, caring community is good for everyone in it, but it doesn’t just happen.
Unfortunately, our whole society has become commercialised. We buy what we want and sell our time and energy to pay for it. This attitude undermines social cohesion because all relationships become commercial. Also, commercial give and take is lopsided, most people give more than they get in return. To turn it around, some people take more than they give.
Busy people find it easier to give money to charity others or think that they are doing their bit by paying taxes, but this is missing the point. These people are missing out on the actual experience of giving their time to their communities, alongside others, and face to face with the people they are helping, which fosters social harmony.
If you support someone else to thrive, that is not a sacrifice, that is a gift. It might seem counter-intuitive that being kind and generous aids our survival fitness and being selfish hinders it, but it is true. When we voluntarily help others we are helping ourselves because we are increasing the amount of trust, goodwill and solidarity in society and that is good for everyone.
* This is a draft extract from the upcoming revised edition of our book Light Feet which will be published in late 2020.