Social interest, a term introduced in the early 1900s by Alfred Adler, relates to a person’s kinship with other living beings and a sense of belonging in the human community (Adler, 1964/1933). Although an understanding of social interest is not widely known, its influence for engendering a more harmonious society is considerable.
Of the thousands of early recollections that I have heard, one particular remembrance stands out in my mind as a clear example of social interest. A number of years ago, I asked my mother to recount one of her first memories. Margaret, who grew up in South Boston,Massachusetts, recalled: ” I remember helping my mother hang out laundry on a clothesline stretching from the window of our three-decker house to the corner of the house next door. We pulled on the line together to get it to move so that we could pin each piece of clothing, one after the other. It felt good to be able to help (Clark, 2002, p. xiii).”
As I remember my mother in growing up, she always seemed busy trying to help other people. Margaret was content in her life, even though it was not easy for her and my father to raise six children with meager financial means. When I was young, I would sometimes wonder how she could enjoy life when making so many sacrifices.
Individuals with elevated social interest show cooperative, constructive, and contributing activity in the context of relationships with others. Although social interest is recognizable in a person’s early childhood, it can also be nurtured and developed over the life course. Encouraging children to be sensitive to the needs of others and attempt to understand the perspectives of other people is essential to stimulate the growth of the personality dimension.
While social interest has altruistic elements, a sense of psychological well-being accrues from transcending self-centered preoccupations. Finding meaning and purpose in life by participating in endeavors beyond oneself is a key aspect of social interest. Belonging to groups also reduces isolation and a sense of loneliness that can be a part of the human condition.
In contrast with Margaret’s remembrance, I have heard numerous early recollections that suggest a low level of social interest. As an example, Jason, related: “I remember waiting for a nerdy kid to come out of the school. When he showed up, I punched him in the face. His glasses flew off, and I stomped on them. It was fun to see him cry like a baby when I crushed his glasses with my foot.” In his life, Jason often feels alienated from the human community and he largely pursues self-centered and antisocial aims.
Individuals like Jason have a deficit in social interest that diminishes their ability to experience a sense of belonging and empathy towards others. The challenge of society is how to stimulate the development of social interest, including persons who reject cooperative and contributing striving.
In my counseling experience, I have observed gains in social interest among clients in the context of a therapeutic relationship of trust and empathic understanding. At the same time, it is easy to mistreat and dismiss individuals who maintain reduced levels of social interest. Paradoxically, this position contradicts the ultimate expression of social interest: to secure a place for all living beings in the human community.