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Altruism, Blessing or a Curse?

Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions and secular worldviews.

Despite the argument by many scholars that we humans are a morally flawed species, concerned only about ourselves, and are fundamentally selfish, more recent neuroscience findings suggest that altruism is not a response to moral authority or the result of religion, but rather a hard-wired instinct.

According to evolutionary scientists, “altruism probably evolved to allow early humans to expand their niche and survive in a hostile world”. The evidence for altruism as a critical part of human nature is seen even in behaviors of toddlers and young children.

Studies have found that toddlers help adults in need without being asked and that young children tend to give up greater share of reward for a partner who has done more work on a task ; and that it is reported that even non-human primates display altruism.

According to one study (Raposa, Laws, Ansell 2015), increasing one's helpful behaviors on stressful days significantly reduced the negative effects of high stress. This can be explained neurologically and physiologically as follow.

1. Activation of the oxytocin system. When people behave altruistically, their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward, similar to when they eat chocolate, etc.

Altruistic behaviors lead to the release of oxytocin—a hormone involved in trust and bonding with others—which may dampen negative emotions.

2. Dopamine-based reward. When you do nice things for others, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in response to rewarding activities. Kindness may indeed be its own (dopamine-based) reward.

3. Lowering activity of the sympathetic nervous system. The fight-or-flight (or freeze) response to stress is well known, and is an expression of the sympathetic nervous system which readies our bodies and minds to deal with the source of our stress. Compassion is associated with a reduced stress response, as is expressing affection. Therefore, it is hypothesized that helping others may directly affect our body’s physiological response to stress.

Altruism is generally a good thing. For your romantic relationship to work, altruism, especially in the form of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of your partner is essential, and sacrifice is sometimes required.

However, excessive altruism is prone to create dynamics between romantic partners, having an undesirable and unanticipated impact on your romantic relationship. If you constantly ignore your own need by being unselfish, you will lose yourself and it can be detrimental to your relationship.

According to recent research by Wei-Fang Lin and colleagues, suppressing your own needs often backfires and leaves you feeling “less authentic and satisfied”. And this affects your partner negatively: They can sense your suppressed true feelings, even if you try to hold them back.

And, it was found in the study that, the more frequently and intensely people compromise and sacrifice for their partners, the more likely they will be depressed.

However, suppressing your needs and wants for the sake of your partner can be good to your relationship when some conditions are met. Following are explanations for this.

· Getting Support: Wei-Fang Lin and colleagues found in their study that if your partner provides strong “social support”, suppressing your needs and wants has no effect on your satisfaction and depression a year later.

In this study, social support meant encouraging and listening to your partner, understanding your partner’s thoughts and feelings, and expressing care and concern for your partner. According to the study, support from a partner could help an individual cope and deal with stress and feelings of vulnerability as a result of a loss of personal resources due to giving up one’s own desires and wishes.

· Being appreciated: A study by Berger and Janoff-Bulman (2006) found that people who felt appreciated for their efforts and sacrifice actually reported being more satisfied with their relationships.

A psychologist, Dr. Amie Gordon mentions in her work that “expectations, on the other hand, don’t just diminish gratitude; they can also foster resentment.” Your partner’s sacrifice becomes just the “responsibility”, “job” or “chore” sooner or later, in many times rather quickly. Until you notice when that “job” is not done, you may have not even realized your partner having been doing the “job” or routinely sacrificing for you.

Demonstrating your appreciation to your partner with genuine feeling keeps your partner reminded that you still notice their doing their “Job” well. Lacking the depth of a positive and genuine expression of appreciation may spoil gratitude and build up resentment. It works even better if you thank you for who your partner is when you say thank you for your partner’s sacrifice with genuine feeling.

· Sacrifice for positive reasons: When people sacrifice for positive reasons (to make their partner happy, for example), sacrifice can be beneficial for a relationship. Making sacrifice to help someone else for positive reasons can redirect our attention to the anticipated positive outcome by our action so we’re less fixated on our sources of stress.

If you are facing challenges in your relationship, we are here to help at Naya Clinics



Sam Nabil is the founder of Naya Clinics and is a Boston therapist and a Boston Marriage Counselor.

Sam offers therapy in Boston and Boston Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety.


Naya Clinics is a top-rated Marriage Counseling, therapy and Life coaching practice.

Naya Clinics offers Marriage Counselors near me, individual therapy near me, and life coaching near me in various locations across the USA and the world.


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