Why Doing Good Is Good For The Do-Gooder
The past few months, with a series of disasters seemingly one on top of another, have felt apocalyptic to many, but the bright side to these dark times has been the outpouring of donations and acts of generosity that followed.
From Hurricane Harvey flooding Houston to Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripping through the Caribbean to wildfires burning Northern California, cities and charities have been flooded with donations and volunteers. The outpouring of support is critical for helping affected communities to recover. But acts of generosity benefit the do-gooder, too.
“Research suggests that these community social connections are as important for resilience to disaster is as physical material like disaster kits or medical supplies,” explained Ichiro Kawachi, a professor of social epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “Voluntarism is good for the health of people who receive social support, but also good for the health of people who offer their help.”
The day after Cristina Topham evacuated her home as a result of the fires in Sonoma, Calif., she and her boyfriend immediately looked for ways to donate and help.
“I just felt like I had to do something. I love my town and my community, and the reach of the destruction was astonishing from the very beginning,” she said.
Why is the first instinct for many to volunteer and donate after a natural disaster? One reason is that as humans we’ve evolved to survive in groups, not alone. Rallying together makes us feel less alone in the experience, explained the sociologist Christine Carter, a fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
“When our survival is threatened, we are going to reach out and strengthen our connections with people around us. We show generosity. We show compassion. We show gratitude. These are all emotions that function to connect us with each other,” Dr. Carter said.
Scientific evidence supports the idea that acts of generosity can be beneficial when we volunteer and give back regularly — and not just after a natural disaster. Volunteering is linked to health benefits like lower blood pressure and decreased mortality rates.
Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been studying the effects of positive emotions, such as compassion and kindness, on the brain since the 1990s. He said the brain behaves differently during an act of generosity than it does during a hedonistic activity.
“When we do things for ourselves, those experiences of positive emotions are more fleeting. They are dependent on external circumstances,” he said. “When we engage in acts of generosity, those experiences of positive emotion may be more enduring and outlast the specific episode in which we are engaged.”
Helping others also gives us a sense of purpose. Dr. Linda Fried co-founded Experience Corps, a program that engages retirees as literacy tutors, after she discovered a strong association between a sense of purpose and well-being throughout life. Older adults who volunteered to help children with reading and writing tended to experience less memory loss and maintain greater physical mobility, one study suggested.
Giving back is a fundamental teaching of many religions. Jesus had the Golden Rule. Buddha said in order to brighten one’s own path, one must light the path of others.
During a trip to India in 2016, I experienced firsthand how the benefits of doing good are well established in Indian society. I paid a visit to a Vedic astrologer because I was anxious about an uncertain future, my own personal crisis, and received a list of prescriptions to help others to get through it. The first task was to buy a black-and-white checkered blanket, then visit a local leper colony and donate it to the first person I saw. My next task was to buy a six-pound bag of lentils, circle it around my head, chant a Sanskrit mantra and give it to a homeless person.
Certainly, many Westerners would roll their eyes at these unconventional “prescriptions,” but they were familiar to my Indian friends, who believe they hold real power.
Later, to better understand the significance of the rituals, I reached out to Dr. Deepak Chopra, author of “You Are the Universe.” He said the philosophical underpinnings in India come from the Vedas and Buddhist traditions, where “all human suffering is a result of the hallucination of the separate self.”
Dr. Chopra explained: “The moment you identify yourself as separate from other beings, or other people, or separate from life in general then you will suffer. And it all begins with initial anxiety because when you’re disconnected from people and life, you feel fear, and that creates the beginning of suffering.”
Would Western doctors ever prescribe acts of generosity? Dr. John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, doesn’t rule it out.
“We have sufficient scientific information to justify a very significant public health initiative,” he said. “If there were a retiree in my office I would ask them, ‘Do you smoke? Do you exercise? What is your diet like?’ I should also be asking them if they volunteer.”
Article Source: www.nytimes.com