What causes someone to become a humanitarian or a philanthropist? Are selfless acts inherently selfish? Does it even matter why someone gives? The psychology of philanthropy is a fascinating look at what makes compassion tick.

Humanitarians are found to share one particular experience: “a transformative engagement with ‘the other.’”  When recounting their initial motivation for becoming a humanitarian, they express that from an early age, they got to know someone different from them and came to the understanding that they were more alike than they thought.  They also share interesting traits, including “an awareness of the complexity and interrelatedness of human problems; and an ability to turn anger, sorrow, and other negative emotions into a force for good.”

Some anthropologists contend that humans could not have survived and evolved without the charity of a group.  Even more interesting, health-wise, our level of stress appears to be influenced by our connection to others.  Our stress systems “calm down when we are feeling close to people we care about – whether related to us or not – and spike during isolation and loneliness.”

Some academics explain the doer of good acts as being motivated by a “helper’s high: when you extend yourself to someone else, it produces an altered state of consciousness. You feel aroused, you feel wonderful, you float on air.”

The problem with being motivated by only extrinsic factors is that a person will lose their ability to be intrinsically motivated.  When there is no longer an outside force involved (fame, recognition, reward, etc.), the person becomes demotivated and cannot see the value in what they are doing.  Deep meaning, like that derived from philanthropy,  is said to be found only intrinsically.  Brain researchers have found that deep meanings “are the source of our reasons to keep going even when we do not understand…Deep meanings shape what we are willing to look at how we interpret our experiences.”

Understanding one’s underlying motivations may not necessarily be important when it comes to philanthropy, because in the end they are giving to an important cause.  It is important to understand, however, for an individual’s own growth and development. Extrinsic motivation is not completely bad, if accompanied with the capacity to be motivated without the expectation of a reward. Operating from such a foundation will equip an individual with the necessary skills to apply in situations in which there are not any immediate, tangible rewards.

– Rifk Ebeid

Sources: Psychology Today, Psychology Today, Health Land, Sage Pub
Photo: UiO Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law