I searched on the internet, “What is it called when a person prioritizes others over oneself?” Depending on where you sit between selflessness and self-focused, you might have your own definitions. Interestingly, what came up was the word “altruism.”
I once saw a near-death experience account of a woman who prioritized others over herself. She came down with advanced cancer, but when she temporarily died and experienced heavenly visions, she learned to cherish herself upon her return to her body. That’s not me. I don’t embrace self; I embrace self only as an act of loving or serving others. I recently learned that my personality type is called a “connector.” And it’s closely tied to altruism. I’m sure there is value in cherishing oneself. I just don’t see it.
There are many types of altruism. The most notable is when we do things for others without expecting anything positive for ourselves in return. I once saw a teenage girl at a bookstore begging her father to buy her a programming book that she could use for a designation exam. I overheard her tell her father that the book cost eighty-some dollars. I debated with myself whether I should buy this young woman the book. It would have had value for her future. But I had recently lost my employment due to company relocation. Outside of groceries, I had $175 to spare for the month. After a long debate, I held back and didn’t buy her the book. Instead, I later purchased a dying loved one a bouquet of flowers. However, I still think of the teenage girl, wishing I had bought her the book. I was meant to do it, and I missed the opportunity.
Another type of altruism is kin altruism, where we give up resources for our family. We may all experience this at times, and some of us may thrive on this activity. For example, I have no problem giving loved ones significant gifts that’ll leave me in debt for years. It brings me great pleasure. Those of us who identify with generosity toward family rate high on kin altruism.
Another type of altruism holds the expectation of reciprocated generosity. We have the “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” mentality. I used to offer opportunities to people who helped me as a means to reciprocate their generosity. But now, I see relations as karmic bonds governed by my duty to serve, not to “expect then reciprocate.” However, if others have expectations of me, I’m happy to comply. Those who like to give and take may identify with reciprocated altruism. However, I believe give and give is the essence of a well-led life.
Altruism can be for the sheer fun of it, too. We get a thrill when we give a gift that helps someone grow. For example, a professor once gave me a book on teaching. I loved that book, and it helped me with a TA role. But the love and nurturing behind the gift mattered most. I later started giving my niece’s toddler gifts to help his mom identify his strengths and talents early. Doing so brought me great joy. Also, volunteering for a beloved cause can generate a wonderful sense of purpose. When we sacrifice for someone or some cause, we feel magnificent.
Best of all, we role model generosity for others when we give. My dad loves to share. He taught me how tremendous it feels to be the recipient of generosity. As a result, I have a strong sense of what a gift can mean for another person. There is no gift too big or too small. Once, I bought a Starbucks drink for a woman counting her change, and she responded like she won the lottery. And once a woman in front of me in line, who I complimented for her celebrity looks, bought my pasta without me knowing until after she had disappeared in the crowd. Her show of kindness flooded me with tears. And at Starbucks, a man bought my tea and the teas of everyone behind me. The barista thought the man was the CEO, Dave Schultz. Whoever he was, his generosity caused me to burst into tears.
To me, altruism is just fun. It’s a rush. And it brings joy. In other words, prioritizing others over self is euphoric for everyone. We all stand to gain unimaginable pleasure from altruism.