Times feel a little bizarre. I was speaking with a friend recently and we could not decide if this year feels like it has flown by or if one week has felt like a month. Such is the result of living in a time of exceeding uncertainty, worry and stress. It is common to have poor sleep, vivid odd dreams, or fluctuating moods – all as a result of increased stress flowing through our minds and bodies.
Psychology and counselling are devoted to understanding, assisting, and describing our mental and personal worlds, yet much of this has been biased towards negative experiences. We have in-depth knowledge of depression, anxiety or loss but far less published research into empathy or altruism. In the current climate, I imagine we could all benefit from understanding these facets of our psychology.
Altruism is loosely thought of as doing something to assist another person for no personal gain or benefit.
Social psychologist Daniel Batson was one of the first to attempt to explore such complex social behaviour. Batson believed that empathy is the source of altruistic behaviour. If we can understand another person’s emotions or situation, then we are likely to act in a pro-social and altruistic manner. It encourages unity, patience and kindness. Rather than self-serving and insular motivations, these are the traits that we should seek to nourish.
Growing up in the Blue Mountains had bountiful pleasures, from cascading waterfalls to diverse wildlife. Something that was not enjoyable was the regular threat of bushfires. A standout was the black Christmas fires of 2001 – I remember standing on my splintered wooden veranda, the summer evening sky alight with an eerie orange glow. Homes were destroyed and people injured, leading to great loss and trauma.
Despite this, I always had a feeling of connection and hope when watching the news reports and seeing communities band together, repairing houses, supplying food for people, and giving strangers shelter. It instilled in me a sense of optimism and aspiration that there was an innate quality in all people to be drawn together, seek out one another, and pick each other up when we fall.
What I witnessed that day in my adolescence and continue to see throughout our current pandemic crisis is the innate potential for goodness and altruism in people.
Empathy and unconditional positive self-regard is a key skill of person-centred counselling, which is a foundational skill I employ every day with clients. Renown psychotherapist Irvin Yalom encourages counsellors to have unconditional positive regard for clients, respecting and acknowledging that all people have innate potential for good, combined with empathy for everyone’s unique world, emotions and wellbeing.
I encourage you to approach your day with patience, kindness and empathy. Not only for the people that you encounter but also the many animals that exist in and around our lives. You may be surprised by the reaction and response you achieve. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if this article resonates for you in light of your own situation.
Photo by Kevin Hendersen on Unsplash