Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.
“The cure for all ills and wrongs, the cares, the sorrows and the crimes of humanity, all lie in the one word ‘love.’ It is the divine vitality that everywhere produces and restores life.” Lydia Maria Child (1802 – 1880), American abolitionist, novelist
Last Monday’s catastrophic earthquake measuring a 7.8 on the Richter Scale in Wenchuan County of China’s Sichuan province jolted not only the region, but also many of our hearts. Up to now, it has cost more than 28,000 lives, and according to BBC news, this figure is expected to rise to more than 50,000. On the other side of the world thousands miles away, I could do nothing much but express my deep sorrow for everyone who is affected by this horrendous disaster. Though the tragedy is heartbreaking, it is soothing that apart from damages brought from the quake, I also see love and empathy.
Love Comes to China
After the incident, Chinese people and non-Chinese people all over the world grew united and made prompt responses. Within a few days, millions of donations have been made from individuals, businesses, various charitable groups, and governments from different parts of the world. Apart from monetary aids, experts and rescue teams from foreign countries offered help with the rescue and relief work selflessly. Even little school children in Hong Kong wrote greeting cards that would be brought to the victims in Wenchuan. Greetings and blessings from all over the world reach the heart of every Chinese through newspapers, magazines and the internet. As I am writing this article, the TV news has just reported that governments from other countries such as Turkey pledged $2 million dollars to be used in aid efforts. Again, this proves that caring and potentially love is beyond national boundaries.
Disasters might trigger the most magnificent qualities of humanity – which includes love, courage, unity, and the perseverance to survive. It is found that cases of depression and suicide drop substantially during war times. Because when tragedies happen, altruism and love which result in helping each other could actually reduce the tension felt from the traumatic experience, as well as highlight the glory of humankind. It is with altruism and love that we may feel the spring of hope in the winter of despair.
Altruism – Selfless Concern and Love
The term Altruism was created by Auguste Comte in 1830, originally as antonym of Egoism. By definition, altruism is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It is not the same as “duty” as it focuses on a motivation to help others or to do good without reward, while duty focuses on a moral obligation towards a specific individual (e.g., God, a king), a specific organization (e.g., a government), or an abstract concept (e.g., patriotism).
Controversy: We Help Because it Benefits Us? Or Because of Love?
Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century British philosopher, once argued that there is actually no altruism as altruistic-seeming behaviors are ultimately based on a desire that originates from the self (selfishness): self satisfaction, receiving praise or social status, etc.
Unlike what Thomas Hobbes thought, for me, true altruism DOES exist, and is initiated by LOVE and EMPATHY! It would otherwise be difficult to understand why volunteer rescue teams helped save lives after the earthquake with the risk of losing their own lives. Their actions don’t fit with Thomas Hobbes’ ideas or with the theory of utilitarianism proposed by John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham. It would be enigmatic why the passengers and crews of United Flight 93 sacrificed their lives to foil the terrorist plot from causing vaster damages on 9/11. It would also be difficult to explain why front line health care staff in Hong Kong bet their lives, stayed in the hospital, and helped fight with the mysterious lethal virus during the SARS epidemic in 2003. I would venture that, without selfless love, none of these would have happened.
What Do Psychologists and Research Tell Us?My beliefs are supported by Daniel Batson, who proposed that altruistic behavior is selflessly motivated. According to Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis, purely altruistic action occurs under the psychological state of empathic concerns for another. Empathic concern is defined as an emotional reaction characterized by feelings such as compassion, love, tenderness, soft-heartedness, and sympathy, and is dependent on perspective-taking.
Experimental results in general supported the empathy-altruism hypothesis. A number of studies have show that individuals help more frequently in altruistically-motivated attempts to improve the other’s well-being rather than egoistically motivated attempts to improve their own. It is also demonstrated that factors that foster perspective-taking also result in increased empathic concern. On the whole, the empathy-altruism hypothesis is repeatedly confirmed in response to challenges. It is also vivid in the earthquake in China.
Good-Heartedness Meets Recompense: Altruism and Happiness
Even though incentives don’t drive altruistic behavior, love, including empathy and kindness to others, might nonetheless bring us an unexpected reward – happiness. Jane Allyn Piliavin has examined the possible effects of helping others. She concludes that doing good gives rise to well-being on psychological, social, and even physical levels, which might come from the feeling of autonomy and choice.
Besides, Martin Seligman once declared altruism and kindness as crucial to happiness. He originally hypothesized that unhappy people are likely to be more altruistic since they would be more likely to identify with the suffering of others. Findings of studies on mood and helping behaviors, however, showed that happy people are more likely to demonstrate altruism. Studies conducted by Alice Isen and Jennifer George also showed that people are more willing to help others and engage in altruistic behaviors when they are happy. Hence, it can be proposed that altruism and happiness are reciprocal.
Further study on the bi-directional causal effect of kindness/altruism on happiness is needed. However, perhaps the research wouldn’t affect our actions anyway? If we are altruistic because of our genuine love and empathy for others, do we really care whether being altruistic gives us a direct benefit?
Further Thoughts …
The theme of this article is altruism, a selfless behavior which it appears could not occur without love and empathy, and its possible associations with happiness. We help and are kind to strangers because we love them and empathize with their feelings. So we do not ask for anything for doing so, and would offer help. When tragedies trigger such spirit from us, do they also cause us to think about the unpredictability of life as well as the idea of treasuring people around us? We can help people we never meet selflessly, and at the same time, might we sometimes be neglecting people around us who have been treating us well? Yet love and empathy are not just byproducts of tragedies. We can love and empathize with others any moment, and don’t wait until we don’t have the chance to love.
One teaching of Confucian philosophy, ‘推親及疏’ (Tui qin ji suo), says that love should start from people close to us, then be extended to other people, to strangers, and eventually to the world. In the West, there is a saying that “charity begins at home.” Might it actually be the other way round given the earthquake incident? This disaster illustrated how people can reach out to the world and to strangers. Would the next step then be to take a step back in our own circles, and show love to those who are around us yet may be unattended to, including our parents, families, lovers, friends, and peers?
I would suggest that we have learned two lessons from the earthquake:
- We can never predict what happens next in our life, but at the same time,
- We are all able to love people and to do good at every moment.
The only thing that could perhaps make you happier than loving strangers in a moment of need could be loving those who love you from the bottom of their heart.
What do you believe about altruism in times of need or altruism and love in everyday moments? I would welcome hearing your thoughts in the comments below.
Batson, C. D. (1991). The Altruism Question: Toward A Social-psychological Answer Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Dovidio, J. E, Allen, J., & Schroeder, D. A. (1990). The specificity of empathy-induced helping: Evidence for altruism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 249-260.
Piliavin, J. A. (2003). Doing Well by Doing Good: Benefits for the Benefactor. C. L. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing, The positive person and the good life, 227-247. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Schroeder, D.A., Dovidio, J. E, Sibicky, M.E., Matthews, L.L., & Allen, J. L. (1988). Empathy and helping behavior: Egoism or altruism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 333-353.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Tent City in Chengdu courtesy of Lukas