My friend walked up to me in a shopping centre the other day and exclaimed, “I’m going to get such good karma soon, I just found someone’s phone on the ground and I handed it in.” This comment was very interesting to me, and I pondered at the root of his thoughts.
Do you only ever do good things because you think it will benefit you? Or do you do things just because they are “the right thing to do”?
Altruism is the belief that the wellbeing of others is equally, if not more, important than our own. Psychologists have wondered whether pure altruism even exists, whether people ever do things just because they want to help someone else without any benefit to them. Egoic altruism is the feeling that by helping someone else, it will in some way benefit you, even if you are not aware of it. Maybe it will make you feel good, or you think it will in some way make others perceive you as a better person, or might increase your favour with a higher power in the hopes of receiving something in return. This form of altruism is almost an investment strategy, but when you want something in return, is it truly altruism?
Another theory on altruism has to do with evolution. Some psychologists believe that our altruistic tendencies relate back to our days as tribesmen. We felt an instinct to protect and help those who were part of the small group, since it was ingrained that our survival depended on the safety of the whole group. Altruism has become a leftover gene that has survived into a day and age where the evolutionary advantages are no longer needed.
But does “pure” altruism even exist, like those stories you hear of people jumping into freezing cold lakes to save someone from drowning? How ingrained is our sense to help others? I think small children are a perfect example. For kids, altruism comes so naturally; they have no qualms about picking something up that you’ve dropped or doing small tasks mindlessly with the sole aim of helping you. This desire to help seems to be some sort of reflex, as there is no evidence to suggest that they learn this from their parents.
Why do we lose this pureness as we get older? Society seems to have ingrained the fact that everyone is in it for themselves, and to trust no one. When a stranger holds the door open, it seems like a miracle, a random act of kindness that sticks with you for the rest of the day, but it should be something that comes naturally for everyone. The feeling of empathy that drives us to help others seems to dissipate as we go through life, and our experiences teach us not to expose ourselves to others. Succeeding in adult life requires you to shut off your altruism and do whatever benefits you in order to make money to survive. What kind of society do we live in where social norms require the destruction of such a pure and good human characteristic?
Empathy is a fundamental oneness that allows us to connect to other people, and it is important to embrace this to live a fulfilling life. We feel other people’s suffering, and as a result we feel the urge to help. In the words of the 19th century German philosopher Schopenhauer, ‘My own true inner being actually exists in every living creature, as truly and immediately known as my own consciousness in myself...This is the ground of compassion upon which all true, that is to say unselfish, virtue rests, and whose expression is in every good deed.’
The phenomenal thing about the Class of 2016 that certainly surprised me when I first entered the school is just how helpful everyone was. Our fellow classmates were happy to give up their time to talk to the new kid and help them settle in. This was all without knowing what kind of person you were. The people who jumped in to help introduce the new kids to school just took a leap of faith. Hence, many of the students in the Class of 2016 were purely altruistic, not for their self-interest. As discussed earlier, this kind of altruism is driven by empathy. This kind of mindset was so infectious that I believe all the students of the Class of 2016 will dearly miss it when travelling down their own path in life. However, regardless of this fact, this legacy can live on through the daily actions of the students of the Class of 2016. I have no doubt that all of us will spread this altruism, the helping hand of empathy. Not only to better the lives of others, but to live a life full of compassion and happiness. To the Class of 2016, life is not worth the successes achieved, if there is no one with us to celebrate. Our modern world is slowly being consumed by fear and a lack of understanding of certain groups of people. Perhaps, the students in the Class of 2016, beyond Somerset College, could all play a part in creating a more compassionate future.