Altruism is Sexy – and Science Agrees


By Carolanne Wright

Contributing writer for Wake Up World

In 2007, construction worker Wesley Autrey was waiting for a subway train in New York, when a man close by had a seizure and fell onto the track. Within an instant — and without thought of his own safety — Autrey jumped down in an attempt to save the man. However, he immediately realized the train was approaching too fast and was unable to lift him to safety. So instead, he laid on top of the man and pushed him down into the drainage ditch between the tracks. While the train operator saw what was happening, he was unable to stop in time — and five cars passed over them. Incredibly, both survived and were uninjured. When asked later why he did it, Autrey told The New York Times: ‘I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”

In an age where Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy reigns supreme, altruism appears to be overrun on a daily basis by competition, selfishness and narcissism. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, after all. Here in America, this seems particularly true. But science is shattering the myth that humans are naturally designed to be selfish and competitive. Rather, we’re actually wired to be prosocial and helpful. Wesley Autrey is a perfect example. As are young children before societal conditioning kicks in. And now science has found that altruistic behavior makes us more desirable to the opposite sex too.

True Flourishing: The Link Between Altruism and Happiness

No one knows more about the hidden benefits of altruism than Matthieu Ricard — a biochemist turned Buddhist monk, who has worked tirelessly for decades to alleviate suffering in the world through incredible kindness and compassion. He devotes much of his time to humanitarian projects in India, Nepal and Tibet. He’s also been named “the happiest man alive.”

In his book “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill,” Ricard quotes Alexander Jollien:

“Altruism is like rings in the water when you toss a pebble. At first they are very small, then they get larger, and finally they embrace the entire surface of the ocean.” Ricard adds: “Altruism and compassion have the aim of spreading themselves as widely as possible. We must simply understand that our own well-being and the world’s cannot rest on indifference to the happiness of the other or on a refusal to care about the sufferings around us.”

When we approach everyone with loving-kindness, altruism naturally arises. This is where the magic happens — we can’t help but serve others selflessly who are in need, as Ricard has demonstrated time and again.

“… everyone knows deep within that an act of selfless generosity, if from the distance, without anyone knowing anything about it, we could save a child’s life, make someone happy. We don’t need the recognition. We don’t need any gratitude. Just the mere fact of doing that fills such a sense of adequation with our deep nature. And we would like to be like that all the time,” says Ricard in his 2004 TED Talk, “The Habits of Happiness.”

Even though Ricard is a Buddhist monk with strict vows of celibacy, I find him compelling — for his kindness, compassion and willingness to work tirelessly for the benefit of humanity. Which brings us to what science has discovered — altruistic behavior is indeed attractive to others.

The Seductiveness of Altruistic Behavior

New research published in the British Journal of Psychology found that those who offer selfless service are more desirable, have more sexual partners, and, yes, experience more sex overall.

Interviewing around 800 people, the team collected data about the participants relationships and tendency for helping others — such as donating to charity, giving blood, helping strangers to cross the street, assisting classmates and more. After adjusting the results for age and personality, “altruists were found to have greater success at dating and sex.” However, “it’s a more effective signal for men than for women. The study found that while altruism is a desirable quality among both genders, it affects men’s lifetime dating and sex partners more than women’s,” said Pat Barclay, a University of Guelph psychology professor who worked on the study.

But this isn’t the first time researchers have realized altruism is sexually attractive to a mate. Three studies of more than 1,000 people have concluded that women value altruistic traits more than anything else.

Participants were questioned about a variety of characteristics they look for in a mate — including altruistic behavior like volunteering. Throughout all three studies, women consistently rated altruism as the most important attribute of a mate.

Says lead researcher Dr. Tim Phillips:

“For many years the standard explanation for altruistic behavior towards non-relatives has been based on reciprocity and reputation — a version of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. I believe we need to look elsewhere to understand the roots of human altruism. The expansion of the human brain would have greatly increased the cost of raising children so it would have been important for our ancestors to choose mates both willing and able to be good, long-term parents. Displays of altruism could well have provided accurate clues to this and genes linked to altruism would have been favored as a result.”

He concludes: “Sexual selection could well come to be seen as exerting a major influence on what made humans human.”

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About the author:

Carolanne WrightCarolanne Wright enthusiastically believes if we want to see change in the world, we need to be the change. As a nutritionist, natural foods chef and wellness coach, Carolanne has encouraged others to embrace a healthy lifestyle of organic living, gratefulness and joyful orientation for over 13 years.

Through her website, she looks forward to connecting with other like-minded people from around the world who share a similar vision. You can also follow Carolanne on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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