THE SENSE AND SCIENCE OF GOOD DEEDS
"Give light and darkness will disappear of itself."
You know the prescription for gloominess: do something kind for someone else and feel better immediately. If you’ve ever had occasion to test its effectiveness (and who hasn’t?) you also know that simply holding open a door for a stranger or pleasantly acknowledging a service provider when you’re down can lighten a poor mood and heighten optimism. Now science proves that the rush you may have experienced at such times is not just in your head. Well, actually it is, but not as an imagined by-product of being considerate.
In recent studies on the effect of performing acts of kindness, neuro-imaging recorded decreased activity in areas of the brain related to stress, and increased activity in areas related to reward. In other words, when you extend yourself for another person, your brain’s pleasure centers light up! That glow signals the release of endorphins that produce “helper’s high.” (Who knew you could experience the euphoria associated with extended running without pounding the pavement and ruining your knees?) As with exercise, the more you do the greater the benefit. Habitually helping others, whether through frequent random acts or regular volunteerism, actually bolsters the neural connections that activate the pleasure centers.
The studies also reveal something reassuring about human nature: it is not receiving but giving that produces a greater positive response. Contrary to what we might believe based on evolution, history and current culture, our brains are wired to derive more reward when we are nice to others than when we are mean, when we are generous in substance and spirit rather than uncaring and selfish. The doer gets more from the good than the getter!
Rosi discovered this in the weeks following her initial rescue from Vienna. (For anyone new here, the earlier blog post “Casting a Broad Light” or the blurb on the Written Works page for The Essence of Rose Toward Days End will introduce you to my survivor friend Rosi.) For one thing, although bereft of family, funds and any belongings except the clothes in which she had fled, she abhorred the idea of being considered needy and refused handouts. And having been pampered her entire life and repeatedly told she would never have to accomplish more than “marry rich,” she believed herself incapable of doing anything useful. Encouraged by the mother of the “hero” who had saved her, Rosi eventually began teaching English to other document-lacking refugees sheltered tenuously in Yugoslavia. She insisted on joining their secret gatherings although doing so risked her own security. The rewards of volunteering–a boost in self-esteem and a purpose to emerging every morning from under the bedcovers she kept pulled over her head–proved stronger than fear.
The benefits of doing good go beyond reducing stress (and consequently avoiding damage to the cardio-vascular and immune systems). Recently I read moving testimony of how it can empower some sufferers to keep clinical depression in check. It appeared in a submission to the “Daily Dose of Kindness,” itself a gift in response to horrific tragedy. At one of the darkest times in his life, the husband of a woman murdered in a 2001 terror bombing in Israel responded by initiating an email intended to make the world better. Each features a brief story of a kindness the anonymous writer witnessed or performed, from the most mundane to the life changing. (Learn more at www.partnersinkindness.com.) Part of the beauty of this endeavor is (as often reported to the site) its influence on the email recipients to emulate what they read about, and by helping them recognize the myriad opportunities to perform kindnesses placed before each of us every day.
One woman who wrote to express gratitude for the awareness raising of the Daily Dose credited the site with changing lives, including her own. At a desperately low point, when she was ready to end it, a friend pointed out that in following through, she would never again be able to help anyone. He reminded her of all she had done for others, accomplishments she valued.
For two weeks she struggled with her decision, continually reminding herself of the friend’s words. Recognizing the importance of helping others and the profound difference it makes in her life literally led her out of the darkness. (And, according to a subsequent submission, reading her contribution gave much-needed hope to another reader battling depression.)
The Dalai Lama didn’t need proof from brain scans when he observed that compassion is innate, and that it can be strengthened like a muscle. Multiple studies indicate that doing a good deed once a week can lead to greater happiness. If you’re not already in the habit, it’s a good time to start, as April 2 is this year’s International Good Deeds Day (www.good-deeds-day.org) . Started in 2007 by businesswoman philanthropist Shari Arison, annually it gains more participants involved in more projects in more countries. The idea is for a growing number of people to “think good, speak good and do good” so goodness increases in the world. Those scientific studies would seem to indicate that is what we’re designed to do.
And remember how much the giver benefits. Pay it forward. Whether you believe in karma or not, the world is round. As Portia says in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” Imagine how cheerfully bright our world could be if we each lived up to our true nature.