Selflessness doesn’t just benefit recipients, but those on the giving side of the
equation, too. The bonus: There are so many ways to give, whether you are being
charitable with your money, time or love. Here’s what science says about
altruism and how it enhances all our lives.
After the last bit of crumpled gift wrap is discarded this holiday season, the loved ones you’ve bought gifts for will very likely remember your kindness. But that warm feel-good emotion behind your generosity isn’t just a boon to the people on the receiving end—it turns out altruism is good for the giver, too.
Consider Eleanor Nwadinobi, MD, who gave up a lucrative medical practice in England and moved to Nigeria to teach poor rural women how to gather,
prepare and store nutritious foods. “That feeling of touching lives is exhilarating,” Nwadinobi says, punctuating her conversation with giggles in a telephone interview from Venice, Italy, where she was attending an anti-poverty conference. “It’s rejuvenating. There’s just that spring in your step.”
Research studies have shown that stress and negative emotions can harm health. Hostile and angry people, for instance, have higher mortality rates (Circulation 2000). In contrast, being concerned with another person’s welfare at a cost to yourself—science’s definition of altruism—can show measurable health benefits despite that seeming contradiction, researchers say.
“There’s a lot of good evidence on how hostile and negative emotion states in extended forms are like acid on metal,” says Stephen Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at the School of Medicine, Stony Brook University. “Positive emotions like compassion, empathy, gratitude and a few others seem to be able to push or displace these negative emotions. That partly explains some of the benefits that are associated with doing unto others.”
Another part of the explanation comes from evolutionary biology. Doing good by others in your community is self-preserving, says Lee Alan Dugatkin, PhD, a biology professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and author of The Altruism Equation (Princeton University Press). Since many acts of selflessness are directed at relatives, Dugatkin explains, people and other animals are helping assure that copies of some of their genes will be preserved, at least in survival scenarios. “Natural selection favors altruism,” he says.
“If you see a squirrel giving an alarm call to warn others about a predator, you can almost bank on the fact that that alarm call is being given in the presence of genetic relatives,” Dugatkin says. “Even if you attract attention to yourself and put yourself in danger, if you can help lots of relatives, you’re essentially getting paid back for any cost you pay, even if you pay the ultimate cost.”
Cornell University has studied families and has proposed applying the altruistic behavior inherent among relatives to helping reduce poverty. Cornell recommends providing incentives to help blood relatives live near one another so they can reduce the risk that the child of a single parent, for example, becomes impoverished.
“It’s possible to take this kind of thinking and apply it into more practical terms,” Dugatkin says. “That said, you really want to make sure that the people who are working in the neighborhood are involved in any kind of plan you develop. Human behavior is very complex, and if you’re not careful you can set up a situation where you create rivalries between family clans.”
Besides blood kinship, the other major evolutionary theory behind altruism is the idea that doing good brings some good in return. An investigation of vampire bats, creatures that cannot survive more than 60 hours without consuming blood, found that bats that regurgitated blood to feed others were likely to have been fed by the bats they helped (Nature 1984). People have shown similarreciprocity-rooted altruism, Dugatkin says, pointing to a tendency for families of kidney recipients to donate organs themselves.
“Sometimes the best way in the long run to help yourself is to help others along the way,” Dugatkin says.
Another study that showed that altruism is healthful examined spending on others, sometimes called “pro-social” spending. It showed that workers who gave away more of their profit-sharing income were happier than those who gave less. In the same study, published in Science in March, participants who were asked to spend cash that was given to them also were happier after they spent it on others. People who spent as little as $5 on others registered satisfaction.
Further, researchers have found that recovering alcoholics who help other alcoholics maintain long-term sobriety after treatment can better maintain their own sobriety (Journal of Studies on Alcohol 11/04). The researchers concluded that clinicians who treat people with substance abuse disorders should encourage their clients to help other recovering alcoholics stay sober.
In a follow-up study published in the same journal last year, the research team, led by Maria Pagano, PhD, assistant professor of child, adolescent and adult psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, observed that 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous’ program work around the principle that substance abuse is a symptom of a larger problem rooted in “self-centeredness.”
“One of the antidotes to self-
centeredness, and one that is critical to an individual becoming and staying sober, is being of service to others,” the researchers wrote.
A Religious Belief
Science isn’t alone in backing the pursuit of altruism. Helping one another is an obligation in all major religions, observes President Bill Clinton in his book Giving (Knopf). Tzedakah, literally meaning righteousness, stands for social justice and giving in Jewish law and tradition. Islam cites zakat, or obligatory giving, and sadaqah, or voluntary giving. Christians embrace the idea of loving one’s neighbor as you would yourself. And Buddhists see donation to others as a step toward enlightenment.
A recent study of Tibetan monks bodes well for the prospect of reversing depression and even the behavior of school bullies, its authors say. The study, published in March in Public Library of Science One, showed that kindness and compassion can be learned much the way playing a musical instrument or proficiency in a sport can.
In the study, researchers working at the University of Wisconsin in Madison used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to gauge emotions among a group of 16 monks who practiced compassionate meditation, a form of reflection in which someone contemplates performing kind
acts for people in need. The monks’ reactions to sounds that were played to elicit emotions were compared to those of 16 people who were taught compassionate meditation just two weeks before the study. During the research, both groups listened to the sounds of a distressed woman and a laughing baby, as well as more neutral sounds like background restaurant noise.
Changes in the Brain
For both the monks and the group of newcomers to compassionate meditation, the scans of reactions to the emotion-filled sounds showed heavy activity in the anterior insula cortex, an area near the front of the brain that the researchers said plays a role in how the body represents emotion.
Activity also increased in the empathy-processing temporal parietal juncture. But the results were more pronounced among the monks—far more experienced at compassionate meditation—than the novices who had recently learned the contemplation practice.
The study showed that cultivating kindness and compassion changes regions of the brain and can make a person more empathetic. “People who meditate to be compassionate have a different brain, so it suggests that one could train oneself to be compassionate,” says Antoine Lutz, PhD, a scientist with the Laboratory of Brain Imaging at the University of Wisconsin.
Giving, of course, doesn’t pack the same punch if it is motivated by self-interest. “I’m not advocating that we think about pro-social and generous behavior as the newest mode of self-help,” says Stony Brook University’s Post. “As a side effect or byproduct of sincere and generous helping, we overall have a happier, healthier and longer life. This is a secondary motivation. It’s okay to know it’s there, but we’re talking first and foremost about a genuine and authentic giving.”
He adds, “Don’t let the law of reciprocity hang over your head. Be kind, let everything take care of itself and hope that people you’re generous to will themselves be inspired.”
But Post and others say people need to take care of themselves first if they are to successfully give to others. That concept is at work when flight attendants demonstrate oxygen masks before a flight and caution parents to don the masks themselves before putting them on their children. That lesson can be applied particularly to healthcare givers and civil servants. Nurses, doctors, firefighters and others in “giving” professions don’t necessarily lead more healthy lives. In fact, says Post, Alzheimer’s caregivers have been shown to be more depressed than others. Indeed, to reap the health benefits of altruism, giving should not cause compassion fatigue and undue stress.
“Living a generous and kindly life over the long haul tends to protect people mentally and physically, and even seems to add a little bit of length to life as long as people aren’t overwhelmed and can create a kind of rhythm and balance and aren’t stressed out by doing too much,” says Post, author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Exciting New Science That Proves the Link Between Doing Good and Living a Longer, Happier, Healthier Life (Broadway Books).
The idea of caring first for the caregivers is at the heart of many health and anti-poverty campaigns in the developing world, which health groups say is beset by major deficiencies of vitamins that can go a long way in preventing disease. The nutritional education programs needed in these regions can be fruitless if the people who carry them out are not themselves healthy. That’s why many outreach groups aim their education efforts about essential nutrients at women, a demographic they say can help stave off disease and nourish not only children but entire families.
For Nwadinobi, the doctor who moved to Nigeria to launch a health outreach group, Women’s Rights to Health Information (WORTHI), teaching women in poor rural areas about nutrition makes perfect sense: Without healthy women to prepare and serve nourishing meals to their families, disease could spread much more quickly.
“The father gets the food first, and the largest portion, and then the child and the mother might get the scraps—that’s the interfamilial hierarchy of food distribution,” Nwadinobi says. “But let’s make sure that she stays healthy and that her family stays healthy. The women have to be alive to be the ones to carry the message and action.”
Among the biggest vitamin and mineral deficiencies, says the World Health Organization, is a short supply of vitamin A, which affects the eyes. The WHO also identifies iron deficiencies that can cut resistance to infections and lead to anemia, and iodine deficiencies that can slow mental development.
Nwadinobi’s group teaches women in poor rural areas to identify local foods like legumes that provide similar nutritional content as more costly and unavailable options like meat and fish. It teaches them how to prepare foods without losing their nutritional value—avoiding overcooking, for instance—and how to store food to last. And women learn how to modify agricultural tools that are typically designed for men.
In their book The Power of Giving (Penguin), Azim Jamal and Harvey McKinnon promote the idea of applying tithing to yourself. Tithing is a practice that many religions advocate under which 10% of income is donated to charity. (Studies show that most North Americans actually give between half of 1% and 2% to nonprofits or religious groups each year, the authors say.) Rather than giving material wealth to oneself, however, McKinnon, a Canada-based fund-raising consultant, suggests that people devote 10% of their time to becoming “better, healthier and wiser.” He calls the practice intrapersonal tithing.
Calculating the number of hours people spend on work, sleep and other routine activities, the authors observe that people have approximately 2,000 hours of flexible time during the year, leaving 200 hours annually (or roughly 4 hours a week) to tithe to yourself. To enhance personal growth and the ability to give to others, they recommend a regimen of reading to inspire yourself, learn new skills and help you look at the world in fresh ways. Exercise at least three times a week, they add, and spend more time in nature and in meditation or prayer. Learning to listen to others and spending time with loved ones also can help nourish compassion.
Caring for yourself first may on the surface sound selfish. In reality, though, it is a common-sense necessity for altruism to work. “You can’t give what you don’t have,” Jamal and McKinnon reason. “If you are physically, emotionally and spiritually drained, you have little to give.”