Tony Richardson is a pro football full back who made a career out of helping others and displaying altruistic behavior, instead of always highlighting his own accomplishments. For this reason, you've probably never heard of him, but he valued the importance of helping others rather than fame. Over the span of seventeen pro football seasons, pro football teams including the Dallas Cowboys, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Minnesota Vikings, and the New York Jets have paired Richardson's talent for helping others with some of the best backs in pro football to win games. But his mission wasn't to make touchdowns and bask in the spotlight - it was instead recognizing the importance of helping others and helping his peers lead the league in rushing. All of the running backs that Richardson helped succeed contend that his influence went beyond blocking for them. His altruistic behavior displayed itself as he would constantly talk to them through the game, advising, pushing, encouraging, inspiring, and helping others. In a Sports Illustrated interview, Tony Richardson said, "I can't explain it, but it just means more to me to help someone else achieve glory. There's something about it that feels right to me." And helping others felt right to his teammates as well, which is one of the reasons they nominated him as the 2002 NFL Man of the Year.
Whether he knew it or not, Richardson's altruistic behavior may have drawn from a fundamental psychological law: The importance of helping others is associated with an emotional reward for yourself. George Burton Adams, an American educator and historian, said it nicely: "Note how good you feel after you have encouraged someone else. No other argument is necessary to suggest that you should never miss the opportunity to give encouragement." Ralph Waldo Emerson described helping others this way: "You cannot sincerely help another without helping yourself." And he could not have been more right. When we empty ourselves of our self-centered desires, and when we surrender our desire to get our way, we are filled with grace. When we value the importance of helping others, each act of altruistic behavior expands our life.
Numerous studies find that helping others, and being able to practice appreciation and love is the defining mark of the happiest human beings. When people engage in altruistic behavior and self-giving love, by doing something extraordinarily positive, they use higher-level brain functions and set off a series of neurochemical reactions that shower their system in positive emotions.
Perhaps you are wondering if this kind of happiness is triggered just as readily by having fun as it is by an act of self-giving love, or altruistic behavior (1). Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, pondered the importance of helping others. He gave his students an assignment to engage in one pleasurable activity and one philanthropic activity and then to write about both. Turns out, the "pleasurable" activities of hanging out with friends, watching a movie, or eating a delicious dessert paled in comparison with the effects of helping others. Seligman states that "when our philanthropic acts were spontaneous...the whole day went better." He goes on to say that altruistic behavior is not accompanied by a separable stream of positive emotion; rather "it consists in total engagement and in the loss of self-consciousness." Time stops when we think about the importance of helping others, nurture a hurting soul, or offer a listening ear.
1. Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and the rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814-834.