Altruism and AlAnon: in helping we are helped

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ResearchBlogging.org“Giving implies to make the other person a giver also.” So said Eric Fromm whose quote starts this research paper which travels to the heart of mutual aid. The clear message? In helping other, we help ourselves. The recovery saying “We only keep what we have by giving it away” hits the mark in this respect. What has research to say about AlAnon in this regard?

Communication and support

The researchers in this Finnish study looked at communication and support in Al-Anon groups, a 12-step mutual aid network for family and friends of alcoholics. In Finland, 97% of Al-Anon members are female and three quarters are partners of alcoholics. They conducted the research through questionnaires (169) and 20 interviews. In the survey they focussed on two questions:

  1. What elements of supportive communication are viewed as important?
  2. Why are they important?


Four themes came out of the questionnaires that were explored in the interviews:

  • atmosphere
  • sharing
  • other group members
  • others’ experiences


What insights did the researchers get? Well they found that the feelings of ‘otherness’ caused by being in an alcoholic family were addressed by being part of a support network where the positive community aspects of Al-Anon came into play. It was important to members that there was parity between members which helped with feelings of inferiority. In addition the taboo and stigmatised nature of alcoholism in society meant that there could often be few ways to seek support, but Al-Anon provided it.

Sharing experience was key to healing. Storytelling allows the processing of information but sharing aloud also lets folk analyse feelings and ‘normalise’ difficult experiences.

In helping we are helped

Ultimately the findings underpin an established truth; that ‘The good of others is the good of oneself,’ a theme that must underpin effectiveness in all the mutual aid groups. The author conclude that the groups give permission for members to ask for help. By helping others they themselves benefit. There is a role of a functionality created by being a member; you can become and feel useful. Finally there is the teaching that the only person you can change is yourself and that is seen as empowering.


This is an interesting study because it takes communication as a theme and explores its agency in Al-Anon groups, identifying and highlighting how human contact and storytelling, ancient and enduring elements of humanity, make practical differences to the lives of families suffering from alcoholism. There is some evidence  that altruism is in some part genetic, but there’s something about warmth, concern and gracious consideration in this paper that makes me want to shy away from a reductionist, scientific explanation. I think the support given to help individuals and families suffering from alcoholism or other drug addiction comes, at least in part, from love.

Kuuluvainen, V., & Isotalus, P. (2014). Supporting others – Supporting oneself: Members’ evaluations of supportive communication in Al-Anon mutual-aid groups Studies in Communication Sciences DOI: 10.1016/j.scoms.2014.03.009

[An earlier version of this blog was first published on Recovery Review in April 2014]

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