Linda Freeman, PhD, LMHC, CAP, Professor of Psychology
Valencia College, Orlando, Florida
Over the past decade, Positive Psychology has been drawing in the attention of both academicians and researchers for its unique and fresh approach to life. Often called, ‘The Science of Happiness,” Positive Psychology is leading the way in its discoveries of what creates long-lasting joy. Among the many theories that are purported to cultivate happiness, one stands clear. When we engage in activities out of a sense of personal enrichment rather work in pursuit of money, fame of fortune, our happiness quotient increases. One such activity that Positive Psychology students are tasked with involves altruism.
Altruism is best defined as “doing good for no good reason.” You can spot an altruistic act when someone engages in an activity purely for the benefit of another person. One of the forces driving us to engage in altruistic acts is empathy. For example, consider the following story:
A farmer had some puppies he needed to sell. He painted a sign advertising the 4 pups and set about nailing it to a post on the edge of his yard. As he was driving the last nail into the post, he felt a tug on his overalls. He looked down into the eyes of a little boy.
“Mister,” he said, “I want to buy one of your puppies.” “Well,” said the farmer, as he rubbed the sweat off the back of his neck, “These puppies come from fine parents and cost a good deal of money.” The boy dropped his head for a moment. Then reaching deep into his pocket, he pulled out a handful of change and held it up to the farmer. “I’ve got thirty-nine cents. Is that enough to take a look?” “Sure,” said the farmer. And with that he let out a whistle. “Here, Dolly!” he called. Out from the doghouse and down the ramp ran Dolly followed by four little balls of fur. The little boy pressed his face against the chain link fence. His eyes danced with delight. As the dogs made their way to the fence, the little boy noticed something else stirring inside the doghouse. Slowly another little ball appeared, this one noticeably smaller. Down the ramp it slid. Then in a somewhat awkward manner, the little pup began hobbling toward the others, doing its best to catch up…”I want that one,” the little boy said, pointing to the runt. The farmer knelt down at the boy’s side and said, “Son, you don’t want that puppy. He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would.” With that the little boy stepped back from the fence, reached down, and began rolling up one leg of his trousers. In doing so he revealed a steel brace running down both sides of his leg attaching itself to a specially made shoe. Looking back up at the farmer, he said, “You see sir, I don’t run too well myself, and he will need someone who understands.”
When we understand another’s emotions, we are drawn to reduce suffering. This is empathy. Our ability to resonate with the emotions of others is part of our neural-wiring and provides humans with an extraordinary ability to reach out and help one another in an effort to reduce distress. During the course of the semester, students are introduced to the value and art of altruism through engaging in 3 random acts of kindness. The key to this exercise is to surprise people by doing them a favor they were not expecting. The value of this exercise is illuminated as students begin to reflect on the meaning of lending a helpful hand.
Since launching the Positive Psychology curriculum, Valencia students have taken active steps in their “hunt for happiness.” Read on to find out how our students as actively shaping a culture of giving for the sake of another.
- At my apartment’s laundry room, all the dryers were full. I was waiting to dry my clothes and noticed one dryer was silent. I opened it and noticed all the clothes inside were dry. Instead of just throwing the clothes on top of the washer (which is what most people do) I decided to neatly fold them and place them in the basket on top of the dryer (Clayton Masters, 2015)
- I allowed a faculty member use the stall before me since the rest were full. She smiled and said, “Thank you,” and I replied, “No, Thank you for everything you do.” I felt happy that I was able to patiently wait to use the next restroom that opened up (Rosalie Taylor, 2015).
- I volunteered for a Daycare downtown during the summer so that there were enough volunteers present for the children to go to Lego-Land. I really felt good about doing something to help out (Dana Driscoll, 2014).
- I have always been an advocate for donating. Recently, I found out that hospitals were in need of plasma, just as much as blood. I took 20 minutes out of my schedule to donate plasma. There is no better feeling than knowing you may be a life line to someone that you probably will never meet (Sylvana Salgado, 2014).
- On my drive home from Monkey Joes, there was an elderly man standing next to his car, on the phone on the side of Semoran. As I passed him I realized that he had a flat tire, so I made a U-Turn to help out. I was able to push the man’s car into a parking lot and change his tire. I was with my kids, and my young daughter leaned over and asked me, “Why are we helping this man?” I told her because when you do good things for others, it makes you feel real good inside.” (Eric Solberg, 2015).
- As I finished pumping gas into my vehicle, there was a distraught man who approached my vehicle and asked for gas money. He told me he and his family were making their way back home and ran out of gas. I felt for this man and his family and gave him the cash in my wallet. Although it wasn’t much, I could see the gratitude in his face. Just being able to help that family go home was enough thanks for me (Chris Gonzales, 2015)
- I choose to help lighten a woman’s load that volunteers at the thrift store I presently work at. Her name is Yami and she comes to volunteer every day of the week. I thought about how she comes in every day and works twice as hard in that back room as anyone does on the main floor. Yami does this without being paid or without being asked. I decided I was gong to fold every piece of laundry in the back room for Yami. After four hours, I folded three tubs worth of clothes that Yami had not gotten around to. I felt useful and good about myself. Yami’s expression was priceless when she saw the clothes folded and when she asked “who had done it?” I just smiled (Jessica Bonacker, 2015)
- I decided to initiate five random acts of kindness, which came about by a feeling of gratitude I have for those around me. My first act was surprising a friend with an annual pass to Wet and Wild. The second act was surprising my co-workers by bringing pizza to work. Next, I gave my favorite teacher at Valencia a rose and followed this act with buying 10 print cards for Valencia students and placing them on the front desk with a sign that said, “Free print cards. Afterwards, I went around campus and taped dollars and quarters on the vending machines along with a sign that said, “Your next purchase is on me!” (Sara Reim, 2015)
Since launching Positive Psychology in the FALL of 2012, students have designed and engaged in over 100 projects oriented towards altruism that have positively impacted the community. As students continue to experience the course, it is my hope a culture of sharing and understanding along with interpersonal sensitivity will achieve increased momentum. In reflecting upon the continual eruption of conflict and violence, the need to teach the role of altruism and empathy as human needs and values deserves educational priority.