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Have you ever noticed that helping others is one of the most satisfying parts of life? Indeed, there is something almost mystical about the nature of altruism: If you focus on chasing material things, in other words, you’ll usually come away from the experience feeling disappointed. If you focus on helping others, however, you’ll usually look on the experience as being innately positive and fulfilling.


The Nature of Altruistic Action

Why should this be the case? Shouldn’t material rewards be the highlight of a life well lived? Shouldn’t selfishness feel good? We’re certainly a very materialistic society; so why does materialism leave us feeling empty and dissatisfied? Who doesn’t want to be constantly rewarded with material things?


Why Materialism Is Dissatisfying

The truth is that material rewards in life are often based around feelings of anticipation. If you’ve ever felt a great desire to purchase something, you’ll recognize that odd feeling of boredom you might have after actually making the purchase. It’s the anticipation of a new possession and the flood of dopamine that we experience while buying something that is addictive. Once that dopamine has worn off, we’re off to seek a new emotional high. This process can repeat itself endlessly. Materialism can even become an addiction.


A Spiritual Reward

It is no secret that the greatest thinkers in human history thought very little of material rewards for this reason. The Greek philosopher Socrates thought so little of material possessions that he was famous for walking barefoot around his native Athens. The son of a carpenter, Jesus Christ chose poor fishermen to be his first disciples. Jesus lived and died in a state of poverty.


Looking Beyond the Self

But these great thinkers put much stock in helping others. Both Socrates and Jesus saw immense spiritual and psychological value in acts of altruism. In many respects, this is almost certainly because altruism is a form of reward that does not fade with time. When we help others, we connect with something larger than ourselves. In the process, we make an impact on the world around us.


While human beings certainly fall into the trap of selfishness from time to time, the truth is that we are social creatures by nature. Most of us value the well-being of our community; many of us even value the well-being of our community over the well-being of ourselves. Altruism is the physical manifestation of this value. Without it, we can become mired in a cycle of selfishness and loneliness. What a way to squander the gift of human life!