The best habit for boosting your happiness

The habit I am talking about is altruism. Altruism – the act of selfless giving – is possibly the most selfish action there is because of how much joy it brings you. We get so much when we give selflessly that the sacrifice is easily forgotten. 

The key is to start, once it becomes a habit to acknowledge the change you are making in the world you start to enjoy the benefits of altruism. The person that benefits the most though is the giver, not the receiver.  

Merriam-Webster defines altruism as:

  1. “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”
  2.  “behaviour by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species”

When they wrote that they must have forgotten that humans are also animals. So for the purpose of this post, I will use a fusion of the two definitions: making sacrifices for the betterment of others. 

Whether consciously or not, we all make sacrifices for the betterment of the other. Most often when we think of altruistic behaviour it usually involves donating something, be it time or money to a cause of some sort. 

While these are the most common ways of being altruistic, I want to talk about how your daily habits can also be a form of altruism. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a purely selfless action. No matter what positive action we do, we always benefit from it in some way – even if it is not always obvious. 

Rewards of altruism 

There are two major rewards for altruism: financial and mental. The financial rewards come in the form of tax cuts. Money donated to charity decreases your declared income which decreases your tax burden. 

This can be particularly advantageous if you are at the bottom of your tax bracket as donating can bring you down a bracket and actually save you more money in taxes than you are donating. For more on this, I would recommend talking to your accountant as I will be focusing on the mental rewards of altruism. 

There is a “giving glow” that encompasses all the positive mental effects that arise from altruistic behaviour. One study showed that the “giving glow” [which they called “warm glow”] arises when people donate to a charity. 

The giving glow comes from the benefits of altruism. These benefits are improvements in life satisfaction, general happiness, and improved overall health while decreasing your amount of stress.

From tax breaks to smiles the rewards of altruism abound. Like all things, altruism is a compounding habit – meta-habit if you want to get technical but more on that shortly – basically the more you live an altruistic life, the more you and the world will benefit from it. 

If you want to take it to the logical conclusion then donate all your belongings and start living as a monk. I am not ready to go quite that far, but I am happy to take lessons from someone who has such as Jay Shetty. 

In his book Think Like a Monk he wrote: 

“Service is always the answer. It fixes a bad day… Service helps other people and (it) helps us. We don’t expect anything in return, but what we get is the joy of service… When you’re living in service, you don’t have time to complain and criticize. When you’re living in service, your fears go away. When you’re living in service, you feel grateful.”

Jay Shetty

How to serve

The services he is talking about in that quote are the altruistic actions that you do every day. To help those around you, holding doors, buying someone coffee, nice things. They are your altruistic habits. 

I may have been a bit misleading when I wrote “one habit”, the truth is, altruism is more of a meta-habit – it is a habit that is built on top of other habits. 

You can’t just do altruism. But you can do altruistic things such as donating money, time or sacrifice yourself by doing things as I mentioned above. Even your job can be an altruistic way of serving, depending on what you do. We all need to make a living and if your work generates more for the world than you get from it then it is at least partially altruistic.

I make wine for a living, if I look at it as making a means for people to get drunk then there is nothing altruistic about my work. However, if I look at it as helping people create memories then I am having a positive influence on the world. 

My argument is not perfect, but I like to think that the wine we make helps people enjoy themselves. This thought makes me feel good – and that’s the point – it’s why I spend my days in the cold winery constantly wet and dealing with nasty cleaning chemicals. Sure, it also gives me money, but as the old saying goes: “you can’t buy happiness”. 

By helping create something I am serving the world, and it gives me an income that lets me serve it even better. The money you spend or give is a vote for the world in which you want to live so make sure that you are voting for what you believe in. 

Habits that serve the greater good 

One small habit that can be seen as altruistic on a global scale is a cold shower. No one benefits directly from this behaviour and you won’t automatically get the “giving glow” from it but you could, all you need is to change your perspective. 

There are selfish reasons to take a cold shower as I described in a previous post, but there are also selfless ones. The environmental impact of a cold shower is significantly lower than that of a hot shower for two reasons. 

  1. You are not using energy to heat the water.
  2. Your showers will be shorter thus using less water.

This example illustrates the selfish side of altruistic lifestyle choices. By doing something that is great for you, you are actually saving the planet – a little bit. Another important daily decision is choosing what to eat. Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet significantly decreases the amount of water and energy required to raise your food. 

Eating even one vegetarian meal a week has several benefits on your health, wallet and altruistically the planet. Decreasing the amount of meat you consume will help make the planet habitable for generations to come. 

If you are already vegetarian or vegan – well done – you are already living the altruistic lifestyle and all you need to do now is appreciate it. Know that your daily choices make a difference in the long run, remember the compound effect. 

You can do better than donating clothes 

Yes, it is for a good cause but you didn’t buy those clothes to give, you simply don’t want them. If you want to help those charities – and the planet – it is best to buy clothes from them instead of giving them more clothes to sort through. 

Instead either try to limit the number of clothes you buy and wear it until it is unusable. Or, if you want to help the charities selling second-hand clothes then buy your clothes there. This will give them money directly.

You, the charities and the world will benefit far more this way. You will get cheap clothes that are actually really nice if you look hard enough, the charity will get money to put towards their cause and you will be decreasing your contribution to the environmental devastation caused by the fashion industry. It is a win for everybody when you buy secondhand clothes.

Altruism is unnatural until it’s not

Richard Dawkins put this concept brilliantly in his book The Selfish Gene:

“… we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature” 

Richard Dawkins

Our nature is not to sacrifice ourselves, it is quite the opposite. If we live on autopilot we will eat ourselves to death with ice cream and cheeseburgers. Our only defence against this self-destructive nature is our consciousness.

We can choose to do an altruistic activity that will benefit others rather than doing what feels good immediately. But this must be learned. We naturally fall for the fallacy of consumerism and lose the ability to handle anything negative or truly appreciate anything positive.

Instead of falling for the fallacy, learn to be altruistic and acknowledge the difference that your sacrifices are making in the world. Once you have mastered this habit you will have hacked your biology by generating a positive experience out of a sacrifice. 

I want to end this journey with one of my favourite quotes:

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

Nelson Henderson

Live your life, plant your trees and watch as the next generation benefits from your sacrifices you are almost there.

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