Altruism, or helping others is one of the greatest gifts of being human. It’s a behavior that implies moral effort. However, it’s become a rare commodity today, in a world where materialism and selfishness play such an important role.
We’ve all experienced that comforting energy we feel when our support lightens another person’s load. Recently, science has discovered the neurological basis of this pleasant experience. In fact, when we selflessly help someone, a part of our brain that’s linked to the sensation of pleasure is activated.
All that glitters isn’t gold
Altruism is desirable behavior from every point of view. Biologically speaking, cooperation between individuals guarantees the preservation of the species. From a psychological perspective, providing and receiving support relieves stress, strengthens self-esteem and emotional bonds, while promoting self-improvement. Even our spirituality is enriched by altruism because it builds us up and connects us with the transcendent.
In light of these findings, it appears that helping others is always highly desirable and beneficial behavior. Although given the complexity that characterizes us as human beings, the answer isn’t so simple.
As a matter of fact, the motivations that guide this kind of helping behavior can be extremely diverse, and they’re the ones that make the difference. On one side is genuine compassion. It arises when we see that someone is overwhelmed by burdens, leading us to selflessly offer our help, our only wish being to improve their situation. In this case, there’s no hidden agenda behind our actions. Nevertheless, this isn’t always the case.
For example, some of us offer our help to feed our egos because we’re eager to receive admiration and social recognition. At other times it’s the benefit we get in return for helping that drives us to do so, whether it be a career advancement or the feeling of superiority to which we’re addicted. It may even happen that we help others because we don’t trust their ability to solve problems on their own.
In fact, assisting others can become a way of controlling our fellow human beings, whether consciously or unconsciously. By doing so, we make them dependent on the support they receive and, therefore, on us. Similarly, false altruism can be coldly calculated to deceive and manipulate others, in the form of a trap or ambush.
Getting in the way
Interestingly, even well-intentioned help can often have the opposite effect. Indeed, instead of making life easier for the other, it interferes with its natural course. On these occasions, our help impedes the development of the other person’s initiative and autonomy.
This happens with overprotective parents who, with the intention of avoiding problems and suffering for their children, do for them what they could do perfectly well for themselves. Nonetheless, there’ll inevitably come a time when their children have to face the challenges of life alone. However, they’ll have to do it without being prepared for it because, ironically, they’ve received too much help.
The art of helping
Helping is a true art. To do so, we must know how to choose the moment and what form of help to offer. We must be able to foresee the consequences that our interference will have for the other. Therefore, we should find out what our true motivation is for helping.
We should ask ourselves: What do I really hope to get out of this? Am I looking for admiration, control, or to feel important? Am I benefiting the other person with my behavior or am I depriving them of developing their own abilities? Finally, am I truly moved by a genuine feeling of facilitating the life of my fellow man?
Altruism is a wonderful value that, in its pure state, can make the world a better place. However, inadequate motivation or a poorly chosen moment can make it a mistake. Let’s not allow our own shortcomings and needs to overshadow the original beauty of such a noble gesture. Let’s learn to manage the beautiful art of helping others.
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