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July 16, 2020
Several years ago, David H. Rosmarin, PhD, director of McLean’s Spirituality and Mental Health Program, took a group of patients to a busy downtown area. He asked them to break into pairs for 30 minutes and challenged them to count how many people they could find in their midst who had a discernible need.
When the patients started paying attention, they noticed:
The exercise, which merely involved noticing others’ needs, generated excitement. Rosmarin said that “there was a lot of energy in that room” when members of the group gathered afterward to share their observations.
Over the years, Rosmarin has noticed many of his patients improve when they simply focus on the needs of others.
The benefits of such observations are backed by research.
The authors of a 2007 article in the journal Nature Neuroscience connected people’s ability to notice others’ actions as the basis for empathic awareness. During a neuroimaging exercise, they also found that activation of a certain region of the brain—the posterior superior temporal cortex–predicted greater altruism.
One way to understand altruism is to consider a known psychiatric condition that is quite different: psychopathy, which is thought by some to be an extreme form of narcissism. Narcissism involves a focus on oneself and a pretentiousness that covers up low self-esteem.
“When someone feels badly about themselves, they try to puff themselves up by giving off the message, ‘I’m better than others,’ but really, people with narcissism usually have low self-esteem,” Rosmarin said.
“Altruism, in some ways, is the converse of such egotism,” he added. “And we know that psychopathy is not only socially destructive but also emotionally destructive for a person.”
Along these lines, it makes sense that since altruism involves focusing beyond the self onto the needs of others, altruistic giving is linked to healthy, high self-esteem and psychological health.
A 2010 study in the American Journal of Transplantation tracked altruism, self-esteem, and mental health among people who volunteered to donate their kidneys to strangers. When researchers followed up with donors two years after donation, they noted a significant impact on donors’ well-being. The majority of donors reported feelings of satisfaction and a sense of purpose in being able to help transplant recipients who had been ill for many years.
As beneficial as it is to notice and act on others’ needs, such awareness doesn’t come naturally to many.
Part of this phenomenon may come from the risk of altruism. We may fear we’ll be rejected or worry that we will misunderstand or offend someone by offering help.
Another factor is society’s focus on productivity. Rosmarin gave the example of waiting at a bus stop. “What is the first thing most of us would do, myself included?” he asked. “Check our phones. Rattle off that next email. There’s an endless list of items to cross off.”
However, by focusing on that to-do list and keeping our eyes glued to our screens, we are less likely to notice the people around us.
So how do we go about developing that sense of healthy self-esteem? We can build it over time.
To intentionally foster altruism in ourselves, Rosmarin said, we can start by noticing others’ needs for an extended period of time—say, two weeks—before we plan to act on our observations. If people start to give to others without intention, Rosmarin said, “they don’t necessarily appreciate what others truly need.”
He added, “When you see somebody else need something, there’s almost this idea of, ‘Oh, no, I have to put out that flame.’ It’s so uncomfortable to just observe life without taking action. I think there’s a benefit to letting that fire burn very bright and then taking action from a real place of wanting to take care of others.”
One cautionary note is that people also need to make sure they’re not using altruism as a way to distract from their own internal struggles or depleting their internal resources beyond a reasonable limit.
“If you want to get in your ambulance and go help people throughout the day, you need to fill up your tank with gas,” Rosmarin said. “Like they say on airplanes: ‘Put on your own mask first!’”