What drives our altruistic instincts?

Throughout history, humans have given their time to help others, for no financial or material gain. Anealla Safdar explores why

In Norway, “dugnad” is the word that describes the sense of community between neighbours who solve a local task collectively. “Ubuntu”, or human kindness, refers to caring for one another’s wellbeing in southern Africa. And, in Arabic, “tatawa’a” means a volunteer act that is not required by religious obligation.

As exemplified by its many names, roots and descriptions around the world, the practice of volunteering may be universal – but the motivations of volunteers can be unique and complex.

Freelance journalist Emma Ryan spent six months volunteering at a community law centre in London that offers residents pro-bono legal advice and representation. Located in one of the British capital’s more deprived boroughs, Hackney, the centre serves residents for whom paid legal assistance would be beyond reach.

“At the time I was considering a career change and was keen to get first-hand experience of working in a legal environment,” Ryan says. “But having lived in London for over two decades, I was also eager to give something back to my community – especially to its more disadvantaged residents.

“It’s easy when you live in a big city like London to become isolated into groups of people with very similar backgrounds and I wanted to better understand and contribute to my neighbourhood. I gained a lot of experience working with asylum seekers, many of whom had fled horrible circumstances. And while the support I was able to offer was obviously limited as a volunteer untrained in law, it was genuinely gratifying to be able to contribute in even the smallest of ways.”

For others, it is their fellow volunteers that inspire them to give back. Gilles Martinage, from France, assisted at the Baku 2015 European Games in the fencing events. “Originally my motivation was pretty selfish – I was just looking to attend a big sporting event,” he admits. “But I found that I gained the most pleasure from helping out the local Azerbaijani volunteers and learning about their culture. It inspired me to help out at two other big fencing tournaments after the Games.”

S Mark Pancer, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario and the author of The Psychology of Citizenship and Civic Engagement, suggests an almost evolutionary impetus behind altruism. “Research shows that when we do not have the connections that volunteering and other civic activities foster, our health and wellbeing suffer, and we don’t develop the kind of trust in our fellow citizens that is so important for a smoothly functioning society.”

In his seminal 1975 tome, Sociobiology, Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson debunked Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest”, proposing instead that altruism was practiced by those with a shared genetic origin, in order to further their genes. Though Wilson went on to contradict himself in 2010, deciding that altruism evolved for the good of the community instead, the theory that altruism has a basis in evolution stuck.

Research shows that when we do not have the connections that volunteering and other civic activities foster, our health and wellbeing suffer

S Mark Pancer, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario

The motivation to volunteer has also been found to have positive outcomes for the individual, as well as the community. Pancer points to research that found a beneficial relationship between volunteering and wellbeing for those over 40. The effect rose as people got older because, the researchers said, “during younger ages, volunteering may be perceived of as yet another obligatory task to fulfil in order to be a good student, parent, worker and so forth, so it does not have beneficial effects on health”.

But not all are able to enjoy the privilege of participation, says Pancer. “Countries characterised by high levels of economic inequality, corrupt political processes or vicious partisanship and individualistic values have much lower levels of civic participation among their citizens,” he explains.

In the UAE, an economically strong and secure country, the Dubai-based Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding provides opportunities to Emirati volunteers, including offering tours and talks to expatriates and visitors about the local way of life. “Volunteering is especially in the 21st century to maintain human-to-human contact, and prevent the wave of individualism that can easily occur as we hide behind our phones and laptops for communication,” says spokesperson Colleen Salamah Stephenson.

On what motivates the students and young people, Stephenson points to an inherent culture of volunteering, where respected figures lead by example. “People are inspired by seeing their directors or managers volunteering”.

The CAF World Giving Index tracks year-on-year giving rates in a bid to stimulate debate about why rates of giving differ between nations and how people can be encouraged to give, in whatever way they can, to help others.

In 2015 it found that religion, government, age and gender were all factors in levels of giving across countries. Myanmar secured first place for volunteering time, which was attributed to its strong culture of Theravada Buddhism, in which devotees practise Sangha Dana, broadly defined as “charity to the community of monks”.

Turkmenistan, meanwhile, dropped from first to 71st position, reflecting the cancellation of “Saturday subbotniks” – the typically mandatory requirement to perform unpaid work on a Saturday.

For Li Wuci, who helps out at the Confucius Institute at the University of Dubai (CIUD), it was the protection of her culture that inspired her to volunteer. “The programme at the CIUD helps people to get to know China and the Chinese, thus developing the influence of our culture. And, I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to open up my horizons and improve my English ability.”

In Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is a big supporter of volunteer work. In June 2015, His Highness launched a volunteer-run initiative The Family Village, which provides orphaned children in the UAE a safe and homely community. Awatef Saleh, one of the surrogate aunts, says: “Nothing is more fulfilling than taking care of orphaned children deprived of love and care from their parents,” adding that her ultimate aim is to see them become successful young women and men.

Dr Saoud Al Mulla is the Colleges Director of the Higher Colleges of Technology, which prepares UAE national graduates for their future careers. Voluntary work is a graduation requirement for all students.

It's about feeling a part of something bigger, whether it’s saying you contributed in a small way to the Olympics or Paralympics, or in a big way to your local tennis club

Rebecca Birkbeck, Head of Join In

“Volunteering work reflects the spirit of really belonging to the place,” said Dr Al Mulla at a recent ceremony. “It’s a job which one usually does motivated by honest and absolute love, and an initiative originated from the heart.”

In the UK, Rebecca Birkbeck heads Join In, the national charity for local sports volunteering founded during the London Olympics and Paralympic Games. Referencing the volunteering opportunities presented by both grassroots sports clubs, as well as major events such as London 2012 or the 2015 Rugby World Cup, she suggests that a sense of belonging can be a key contributor to the drive to volunteer. “I think that each is about feeling a part of something bigger, whether it’s saying you contributed in a small way to the Olympics or Paralympics, or in a big way to your local tennis club.”

Liu Xiang, who volunteered at the Shanghai Expo 2010, echoes this sentiment. “The great thing about helping at the Expo was the sense of being part of something; it makes you feel like it’s your own event. Even now, if we hear critique of the Expo we can’t help but argue for it, because the volunteers – who were nicknamed ‘little blueberries’ – made it such a human and beautiful experience.”

Sometimes, though, the motivation can be more complex, more personal. In 2013 Emmy-award winning writer John Marshall was made redundant and thrust into professional and personal crises. The husband and father of three, who had once written for the likes of The Chris Rock Show, was having difficulty connecting with his wife and his youngest child had left for college. Feeling increasingly lonely, his level of motivation plummeted.

“I made an impulsive decision to go to India and volunteer my way around the country for six months,” he says.

After landing in India, he became sick and convalesced at a large orphanage on the border with Nepal. He’s now putting together a foundation for orphans. Since his return, Marshall has written a book about his experiences, Wide-Open World. “I always find that I get much more than I give when I volunteer,” he says. And his advice to those considering volunteering is simple: “Don’t wait.” “Whether on a local, national or international level, get out there, give of yourself, nurture that call within your own heart first, and that change within you will inspire others.”