The science behind generosity
A little kindness goes a long way—for others and yourself, too
Mar 5, 2017
There’s hardly any reason for doctors to promote the lifestyles of Bill Gates and Angelina Jolie, except of course when philanthropy enters the picture. “Helper’s high” pertains to states of euphoria triggered by doing good deeds, probably those experienced by no less than Abraham Lincoln himself or fictional French girl Amélie Poulain.
Stimulating the production of endorphins in the brain, doing good apparently induces a subtle, natural iteration of a morphine high. The Atlantic cites a study conducted at Washington University: “Older adults who began tutoring children demonstrated improvements in stamina, memory, flexibility, and depression.” Research from the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the U.S. further states that thoughts of giving money to charity activate parts of the brain stimulated by food and sex. Kindness, apparently, is a pleasure on its own.
Physically, what we can call the added perks of being kind stem from the relaxation of the nervous and cardiovascular systems. Studies prove that helping someone face to face reduces blood pressure and improves the activity of the vagus nerve—the longest nerve in the body—to keep the heart in shape. There are even studies that say regular volunteering prevents early death much more effectively than exercising.
Beyond medical explanations, there’s a more apparent reason why donating, caregiving, and volunteering probably give a more elusive existential pleasure: do-gooders perceive the tangible results of what they do—improving lives, making a difference—and likely become closer to fulfilling a more abstract change-the-world agenda.
“Charity is really self-interest masquerading under the form of altruism,” says Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello. While philanthropists and volunteers enjoy the merits of recognition, self-validation, building a legacy, or simply attaining peace of mind, prescribing kindness for health reasons, if not a bit ridiculous, can be somewhat paradoxical. It casts charity simply as a means for one’s own sense of satisfaction. Sara Konrath, a researcher at Indiana University, further observes that people who volunteer for more self-satisfying motives had mortality risks similar to those of the average individual.
The fact is that altruism, rather than philanthropy or volunteering, requires a certain state of mind rather than a mere calculation of money donated or hours spent in the field. Selfless attitudes bring about an inner balance otherwise achievable only through intense meditation. Moving past navel-gazing or one’s personal hero narrative, an individual can focus on building stronger social ties, in effect reducing a crippling sense of dissatisfaction and isolation. Even Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge lived longer by thinking of others for a change.
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