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Altruism is traditionally seen as the most noble of human impulses. It partly defines us as a species, and in our best moments, alive in an act of caring about others, it can redeem us. No wonder most religions promote it: selflessness, charity, mercy, sacrifice – the act of giving is nothing short of a calling to elevate humanity.And this is the season for it, of course. With its opening vowel, altruism sounds like something an angelic choirboy might sing in a sustained, clear pitch – as beautiful as the very idea of it. For many, doing something for those in need – serving turkey to the homeless, clearing an elderly neighbour's walk, or just donating money – is central to observing the holidays.

I, too, feel that call to the soup kitchen (it comes up often these days, perhaps because my empty-nest life allows me more free time). And it turns out so do a growing number of Canadians. According to Statistics Canada's most recent findings, 13.3 million of us volunteered in 2010, an increase of more than 800,000 since 2007. And whereas previous reports indicated that most of work was being done by a small group of "uber volunteers," age 15 to 24, the data now suggest that base is broadening. Baby boomers and senior adults contributed more than 1 billion volunteers hours in 2010.

What explains the rising number of volunteers? Emerging research shows that giving to others increases life satisfaction. Volunteering plays a role in healthy aging, can reduce stress-related illnesses and boost self-esteem. There's self-enhancement in being good to others, in other words. Or as Abraham Lincoln once said, "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion."

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Now, I have no desire to curdle your eggnog – or mine, for that matter – but that's one jolly holiday paradox: if we give to others in order to give something to ourselves, if it's simply a shrewd insurance policy for our own well-being, is that really altruism? Or is there something we're missing about altruism's beatific light?

Survival of the nicest

Skepticism about the existence of "pure" altruism is hardly new. Over centuries (times centuries) debates about giving and goodness tend to boil down to a showdown between those who believe we do good because we inherently are good and those who agree with Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century thinker who argued that humans always act out of psychological hedonism – the impulse to please themselves. Spotted giving money to a beggar and asked why, Hobbes responded that he was simply relieving his own discomfort at seeing someone in distress.

Science has tried to find its own answer to the question of altruism. Charles Darwin puzzled over how it fits into natural selection and the survival imperative, which would seem to favour selfishness. His solution, says Elliott Sober, professor of philosophy at University Wisconsin-Madison and author of Unto Others, is the theory of "group" natural selection, which "promotes within-group niceness and between-group meanness."

Anthropologists see two instances of "within-group" altruism: kin selection (you're nice to your siblings to give your own genetic material a boost) and reciprocity (you will help an individual who can help you in return).

And in case you're wondering, not only humans exhibit altruism. Rats will run across electrified grids in order to save baby rats. Ants help each other. And in some experimental settings, chimpanzees may assist other chimps if it doesn't cost them too much.

But in groups of great apes, "we never see helpful activity with strangers," says Joan Silk, a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University who has studied how evolution shapes altruism in primates and humans. "Humans are outliers in the frequency and scope of their altruism. We are much more endowed with the motivation and satisfaction in helping others."

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It's that "helpful activity with strangers" that we still find so difficult to understand. Is it about ego? Empathy? Morality? Peer pressure?

Social psychologist Dan Batson, the author of Altruism in Humans and a widely acknowledged authority on the subject, has devoted 30 years of behavioural experimentation to "teasing apart" our motivations.

He argues that even falling on a grenade to save the lives of others isn't necessarily an act of pure giving. Great sacrifice can be a push for posthumous rewards (the label "hero," for example).

"I'm trying to answer a question about human nature," says the professor emeritus at the University of Kansas. "I'm not trying to blow a trumpet for humanity."

Giving, and getting

If all this sounds terribly Scrooge-like, look at it another way: giving is richer not poorer than we thought – it delivers to everyone involved.

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And that adds to altruism's power. That we feel satisfaction after caring for others may be a biological indication that such behaviour is essential to the health of the species, something we should do again and again – like having sex. To use a word from the pros that study altruism, it's "pro-social" behaviour, a virtuous cycle of giving and getting.

Positive psychologists, who study how we can increase happiness and well-being, have been documented a variety of paybacks to giving.

In a finding that seems counterintuitive in a consumerist culture, researchers at the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School showed that, regardless of income, those subjects who spent money on others reported greater levels of happiness. In one experiment, they gave participants $5 or $20 and told them to spend it by the end of the day. Half were told to spend it on themselves. The other half had to spend it on others. The biggest happiness bang for a buck? Giving money away.

A recent meta-analysis of research data at Stony Brook and Arizona State University suggested the ultimate incentive for older adults to volunteer – putting off death. Even when other factors such as health, economic status and social networks were taken into account, the helping behaviour of older volunteers appear to reduce the risk of death by 25 per cent.

Volunteers themselves, including those who give a lot of their time, are humble – and wise – enough to acknowledge some self-interest in the act of giving, according to a recent study by Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow.

Veronica Van Rooyen, a 47-year-old executive vice-president at G Squared Licensing and Branding in Toronto, is a breast cancer survivor and fundraising volunteer at Princess Margaret Hospital. "Sure, it could benefit me, raising money for breast cancer research. And there's also so much that comes back to me in the way of satisfaction," she says, adding that involvement in the cancer community provides solace and support.

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For others, helping is a form of sublimation. "I can forget my own problems," a friend once said of the hours she devotes to volunteering with the Red Cross. Or it can be instructive for dealing with one's own difficulties. Jessica Kerwin, a former fashion writer for Vogue magazine, once wrote about going to India to volunteer in a leprosy treatment centre as a way to put her divorce and joblessness in perspective. "The women of that house – with their theatrical, precious, mischievous lust for life – showed me how to handle it," she said.

Or maybe you feel the urge to give your time because you feel you have something to offer. That's certainly part of the reason I have spoken to women's groups about challenges such as divorce and work-life balance, and sat on volunteer charitable boards.

This could be seen as an exercise in sentimental self-regard. Who am I to say that the way I chose to navigate certain challenges is the right way? Indeed, some academics caution us about our impulse to "teach" others. Barbara Oakley, a professor at Oakland University in Michigan who researches what she calls "the intersection of neuroscience and society," told me in a phone interview of the need for more research into "paternalistic narrcissim and self-righteousness in our own pursuit of what is right" through volunteering.

But I think curiosity and a desire to learn from people are part of that engagement with others. According to surveys by Volunteer Canada, an organization that encourages and facilitates community participation, older Canadians want to help others as part of their retirement; three out of every four boomer-aged volunteers get involved to put their skills and experience to good use – and to keep on learning.

'I want to be my best self'

And then there's empathy: Even the skeptical Prof. Batson's experiments uncovered strong signs of altruism motivated by pure empathy. In one case, some study subjects eager to help felt just as good when those in need got that help from someone else. In another, he found that people who encountered someone in need usually reported two distinct emotions: personal distress (alarm, worry) or empathy. In both cases, they helped, but when provided with an easy way out, 67 per cent of those who felt distress took it, compared with only 17 per cent of those who felt empathy.

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Prof. Batson told me that the findings about pure altruism suggest that these qualities should be encouraged, taught and tapped. And it's true that empathy and compassion are emotions – skills, even – that should be brought to the fore. Some elementary schools are doing just that to help prevent bullying, for example.

But whatever pushes us to help others – to get close to people in pain, in need, or to spread joy through our own time, energy, sweat and courage – does getting something back diminish our best acts? It is an important part of civic life. Governor-General David Johnston recently launched a marketing campaign, "My Giving Moment," to encourage Canadians to help worthy causes through deeds and donations, however small. Giving to others as part of everyday life "makes for a better country," he said.

We are all governed by layers of disparate emotions and motivations. Love is not always as pure as people like to think. It is complicated by neediness and insecurity. Grief often comes with sadness and anger. Why shouldn't self-satisfaction co-exist with empathy?

"I think there's an urgency after you've had a major illness to be all you can be," Ms. Van Rooyen says while discussing her volunteer work with Princess Margaret Hospital.

"If you believe in something after death, you think, inside, 'I have to be good today. I want to be my best self,'" she continues, acknowledging that she wants to be on the side of angels. "But a big part of it is having purpose, having meaning. There has to be something deeper than just surviving on this planet."

If that isn't an endorsement of the altruistic impulse, and the mystical, fluid complexity of humanity, I don't know what is.

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