Let Altruism Guide Your College Experience

By Staff Writer Published on March 24, 2017
“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.” —Kahlil Gibran

As a busy college student, it can be very easy to get caught up in yourself. With so many responsibilities, from school work to demands at home, you may notice yourself being less and less sensitive to the feelings and circumstances of those around you. This is completely natural and, of course, does not make you a bad person. However, have you ever considered how acting this way could affect your college experience?

Altruism is the practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others. Are human beings born naturally selfish, or is altruism at the root of being human? With the countless acts of selflessness we see occurring worldwide between complete strangers, one could probably argue the latter.

Altruism Is a Positive Force for Change

A Syrian organization called The White Helmets consists completely of volunteers. Their entire mission is rescuing victims of that nation’s civil war, innocent civilians who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They dig people out of rubble from bombed buildings, secure damaged buildings, clear roadways, reconnect water and electricity, teach children about the hazards of unexploded ammunition, fight fires, and manage evacuations.

All this is at the extreme risk of their own lives, and they receive zero compensation in return. Their mission is simply “to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property.”

Photo courtesy of Syria Civil Defense

Photo courtesy of Syria Civil Defense

In another example, Brandon Stanton is the photographer behind the internationally popular Humans of New York Facebook page, which has garnered over 18 million likes since its inception in 2010. This group started out as a sort of catalog of people in New York City. Stanton would interview random New Yorkers on the street and then share their picture and a quote on Facebook. Now the group has exploded into a poignant worldwide documentation of humanity.

Stanton continues to raise awareness for humans in crisis around the world, fostering an international sense of connection and duty among his millions of followers. He has tirelessly raised millions of dollars for children in disadvantaged school districts, to help end bonded labor in Pakistan, and for pediatric cancer research. Miraculously, all this has been achieved almost entirely through Stanton’s immense Facebook following.

“Being a grandfather is quite different. It’s much looser than being a parent. I don’t have to always worry about providing patterns of behavior. I just get to give her little kisses. I was allowed to borrow her this morning so we are walking through the park. It’s our personal pastime. She likes to look at the dogs and birds. Today we saw some blackbirds which was quite exciting.” (Santiago, Chile) Photo courtesy of Humans of New York

“Every day seems like a new low. I’m currently going through a transition with housing. I’ve got issues with her father. I’m on my own for the first time. I don’t even know where we’re going to live. But she’s always trying to cheer me up. One time she drew a rainbow, and put it in the mailbox, and told me I had mail. When she saw me crying on Mother’s Day, she said: ‘I got you, Mommy. You’re the best Mommy ever and I’m always going to hold you down.’ And she learned this song from the show Yo Gabba Gabba. It goes: ‘If you try it, you’ll like it.’ So that’s what she says to me whenever I feel like I can’t get out of bed.” Photo courtesy of Humans of New York

You Benefit Immensely from Your Own Altruistic Behavior

You may be wondering, “What does this have to do with me?” Practicing altruism in any social setting not only benefits the recipients of your service but also helps you feel fulfilled, useful, and necessary. Such self-awareness and confidence is character-building. While you may not end world hunger or stop a war, remember that small changes on an individual level can spread to a societal level because of one simple fact: altruism is contagious.

In his TED Talk from October 2014, Buddhist monk and happiness researcher Matthieu Ricard discusses the importance of altruism on both the individual and societal levels. When altruism starts with the individual, it gradually becomes societal. Studies have shown that, after practicing mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion for just 20 minutes a day for four weeks, the brain shows actual structural changes.

Let Altruism Guide Your College Experience

How can you let altruism play an integral role in your college experience? Developing altruism doesn’t have to be overly difficult or stressful to fit into a college schedule. Find an activity that encourages you to think of others, whether it’s some small act of service, expressing gratitude to someone who has helped you, volunteering, saying something kind to someone, or researching problems in the world and figuring out how you can help. Or, it can be as simple as smiling at a fellow classmate on campus or holding the door open for someone. Even just writing in your journal can count, because the introspection that naturally results can open your mind and help you see more clearly.