Most recovery programs and 12 Step fellowships promote and encourage different forms of altruism. Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, creates service positions within home-groups, with things as simple as making coffee, being a door greeter, or getting to meetings early to set up. These practical forms of service are just one aspect of altruism in recovery. Altruism occurs in more informal ways throughout recovery fellowships, including driving newcomers to meetings, sponsoring other alcoholics, and donating literature to prisons and treatment centers to help spread the message of recovery. Why do 12 Step programs place such an emphasis on altruism and service? What are the benefits of incorporating altruism into our daily lives and helping others without any obvious ‘payoff’?
Simply defined, altruism is “feelings or behaviors that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness”. Unlike donating money to a charity with the hopes of a tax deduction or recognition, altruistic acts are motivated entirely by an internal motivation to be helpful with no external reward. Another definition that captures this says that altruism is a “behaviors that are not beneficial to the individual but that benefits others”.
Altruism is found all over, from religious groups, in-between families, and among non-profit groups with no financial goals. However this article focuses on recovery programs and their ‘obsession’ with altruism. The primary purpose of the Alcoholics Anonymous is to “carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers”. In the past, sober alcoholics would visit insane asylum, detoxes, and jails to carry the message of recovery to others for no benefit to themselves. Often they would give these ‘wet drunks’ a place to live, a job, and more. These are extreme cases and today such instances are not as common. However buying newcomers coffee, picking them up to go to meetings, and devoting free time towards helping others is part of the core of recovery.
Why Practice Altruism?
The roots of helping others without expecting anything in return dates back hundreds of civilizations. Since the person practicing altruism is receiving nothing in return, at least not physically or tangibly, their motivations must come from somewhere else. This is where we examine the benefits of altruism; why people do self-less and charitable things without recognition or reward. The benefits of altruism, charity, and service have been well documented throughout history.
“History shows that the roots of altruism are deeply embedded in humans, even genetically and that they affect health in ancient times and are heavily involved with our evolved human nature. Humans evolved to be altruistic in various ways and ‘our altruism impinges significantly on our own health and that of others” – Christopher Boehm “Altruism and Health”
Here are some proven benefits that anyone, especially someone in recovery, can expect from practicing altruism and service in daily life:
- Feeling of satisfaction – Just because you’re being altruistic doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t feel good about it
- Experience Gratitude – Sometimes, actually seeing what is on “the other side of the fence” can make you feel thankful for what you have
- Improved Mental Health – Engaging in helping others can have positive impacts on our mental states. Specifically it has been show to reduce depression and stress
- Improved Physical Health – Research has discovered that helping others can not only improve your mental health, it also can improve your physical well-being
- Releases Endorphins – The positive energy that you feel from doing a good deed can act on your body in much the same way that exercise does, releasing endorphins that make you feel good naturally
With so many benefits stemming from helping others, there is no mystery as to why recovery support groups and therapists recommend altruism.