Is Being Good Good for You?

Being Good Good for You?Flickr El Gringo (CC)

First, what is meant by “good”?  “Good” refers here to a way of life in which the security, well-being and happiness of others is actively meaningful, and in which this meaning centers not just on the near and dear, but leans outward to all humanity. Such goodness can be expressed in many ways as needed by beneficiaries – intentional acts of kindness, helping and volunteering, empathic listening, compassion as affective empathy in response to suffering, creativity, forgiveness, loyalty, mentoring, respect, and justice in  access to the decent minimum of the those things without which a life is unsustainable.

We do “good” for the sake of others, but as a by-product or side effect the agent of goodness is very likely to discover meaning, purpose, gratification, deeper relationships, resiliency, hope, joy, and even health and longevity. A genuine disposition of concern for others will ordinarily benefit the giver who, free from reliance on any calculated reciprocity (pay back), nevertheless benefits.

Of course no one gets out of life alive, aging is everyone’s disease, good young people can have a terminal cancer or deadly accident, and bad things can happen to good people especially when their sense of a shared humanity is perceived as a threat by those who only value some little subset of humanity. Equal-regarding activists such as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Yitzhak Rabin, and Benazir Bhutto were all murdered. But as a reliable generalization, it is still “good to be good,” and science says it’s so.

Let us quickly note 12 “good to be good” scientific studies, although the list could be a hundred times longer:

1. Rumination and bitterness contribute to depression and physical illness, but they can be overcome by intentional acts of kindness that divert attention and emotional energy from the self with its inward litany of hostility;

2. Alcoholics who are “high helpers” of others in the 12-Step community of Alcoholics Anonymous have a 40 percent recovery rate after one year of sobriety (and reduced depression rates), while “low helpers” have a 22 percent recovery rate;

3. Individuals suffering from chronic pain experience decreased pain intensity, levels of disability, and depression when they begin to serve as peer volunteers for others suffering from chronic pain;

4. Among physicians and lawyers taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a widely-used psychological test, those who at age 25 scored in the top quartile on questions revealing “hostility” had a 20 percent mortality rate by age 50 due to heart disease, while the low quartile had a mere 2 percent rate;

5. Nineteen subjects were given money and a list of causes to which they might contribute. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that their  making a donation activated the mesolimbic pathway, the brain’s reward center;

6. The incidence of heart attacks is highly correlated with the level of self-references (i.e., “I,” “me,” “my,” “mine,” or “myself”) in the subject’s speech during a structured interview;

7. Adolescents who volunteer regularly have lower levels of physiological factors that predict future heart disease or diabetes in young adulthood;

8. Students were assigned to a control group or an experimental group in which they were asked to perform five random acts of kindness a week for six weeks. The students who engaged in acts of kindness were significantly happier than the controls at the end of the six weeks;

9. There is a strong correlation between volunteering in older adults and reduced depression and mortality, as well as increased resilience and hope;

10. Researchers at Cornell University followed 427 wives and mothers who lived in upstate New York for 30 years. The researchers were able to conclude that, regardless of number of children, marital status, occupation, education, or social class, those women who engaged in volunteer work to help others at least once a week lived longer and had better physical functioning, even after adjusting for baseline health status;

11. At the Duke University Heart Center Patient Support Program, researchers concluded that former cardiac patients who make regular visits to help inpatient cardiac patients have a heightened sense of purpose and reduced levels of despair and depression, which are linked to mortality;

12. The Corporation for National & Community Service conducted a study using health and volunteer data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Center for Disease Control. It found that states with high volunteer rates also have lower rates of mortality and incidences of heart disease.

In the 2010 United Healthcare/Volunteer Match Do Good Live Well Study online survey of 4,582 American adults 18 years of age or older, the benefits reported are quite profound (see ):

  • 41 percent of us volunteer an average of 100 hours per year. (This rate is basically the same regardless of gender or race. For men, the rate is 39 percent, for women 42 percent; for Caucasians 42 percent, African Americans 39 percent, and Hispanics 38 percent.)
  •  68 percent of volunteers agree that volunteering “has made me feel physically healthier,” 92 percent that it “enriches my sense of purpose in life,” 89 percent that it “has improved my sense of well-being,” 73 percent that it “lowers my stress levels,” 96 percent that it  “makes people happier,” 77 percent that it “improves emotional health,” 78 percent that it helps with recovery “from loss and disappointment”
  • Volunteers have less trouble sleeping, less anxiety, less helplessness & hopelessness; better friendships and social networks, and sense of control over chronic conditions
  • 25 percent volunteer through workplace, and 76 percent of them feel better about their employer as a result

The survey was conducted by TNS (Taylor Nelson Sorfres), the world’s largest custom survey agency, from 25 February to 8 March 2010.  Does any pill have such a pronounced self-reported impact? Note that this study does not suggest that the more volunteering a person does the better they will feel. Rather, it points to a “threshold” of a couple of hours a week that allows a “shift effect” to occur in everyday people who volunteer. It should also be noted that this study does not apply to those individuals who are involved in the helping professions, such as nurses, social worker, psychologists, good teachers, clinicians and pastors. For them, it is important to balance their professional lives with hobbies, meditation, families, and playful activities. “Meditation” and “medicine” both come from the same root word, “medi”, meaning balance.

My mom Molly Magee Post had it right when she told me as a kid having a lonely dull afternoon: “Stevie, why don’t you go out and do something for someone!” Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his famous essay on the topic of compensation, wrote, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself….” The 9th-century sage Shantideva wrote, “All the joy the world contains has come through wishing the happiness of others.” Proverbs 11:15 reads, “those who refresh others will be refreshed.” In Acts 20, we find the words, “’Tis better to give than to receive.” These words are scientifically plausible.

Note that a miserable Ebenezer Scrooge became mirthful and energetic as increasing engaged in small helping actions, as the James-Lange theory of emotional change would suggest. Small acts of helping, even if at first done somewhat grudgingly, can in many cases transform the inmost being. It is always good to be good as a way of transforming or preventing destructive emotions.

Human nature includes affective and rational capacities for “goodness”.  These are easily overwhelmed by negative hierarchies or cultural triggers. Good role-modeling is important (imitation), and for many “spirituality” enters in as a feeling of some Oneness that is the ultimate attachment source for love and goodness. The poet W.H. Auden described his quiet experience as follows: “One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two woman and one man….We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it – what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.”

Discussion Questions:

Here are some questions that need to be asked around prescribing or recommending goodness (my preferred notation for this is “Rx: Good 2 B Good”):

1. “Rx: Good 2 B Good?”  Because much is now known about the emotional, health, and other benefits of practicing “goodness”, are we at the point where it might be recommended or even prescribed in adolescent medicine, geriatrics, and some areas of psychiatry, for starters?

2. How might “Rx: Good 2 B Good” be implemented? There have been some pilot studies in geriatric clinics where older adults are encouraged to go on line with to search for volunteer opportunities in their local environment that they might find especially interesting and that would engage their talents and strengths optimally.

3. Should “Rx: Good 2 B Good” be encouraged in schools from younger ages, such as grade school, and how might such a learning culture be created?

4. Are people of all ages more eager to learn when they feel that they are studying for some purpose of “goodness” that is beyond their own narrow self-interest? Do they learn more, retain more, and have more creative futures?

Discussion Summary

A respondent suggests auto-experimentation. Is being good good for you? Try it out on yourself. I have found that in any environment, generous actions do indeed cause feelings of meaning, gratification, gratitude for life, and a form of deeper happiness, as the research shows. This does not require an environment of reciprocation, although this is always welcome.

Even in hard times and difficult environments generous actions are a much better alternative to destructive emotions and mental states. Victor Frankl experimented on himself in a concentration camp and found that sharing his small bit of food with others was a source of meaning and of survival. Dietrich Bonhoeffer cared pastorally for his jailers in a Nazi prison even on the day he was executed. I once wrote a book, The Hidden Gifts of Helping, to underscore how effective a coping mechanism good actions are in the valleys of all our lives. The Hindus, Buddhists and the theologians all say that it is in the wilderness that we can meet the divine within through acts of goodness. By all means, auto-experiment and let your life speak to you. But don’t bank on goodness having an external payback, and know that you may find yourself persecuted, especially if you are engaged in what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as “the love that does justice.”

I will add that goodness is largely in the details of behavior. Dr. Robbins was a very “good” doctor. He was competent and diligent, and did many successful surgeries without much consideration of self and family, although he lived a somewhat balanced life. But at a fine level of detail, he knew how to listen to patients, he never interrupted them, and he always paused for several seconds after they spoke just be sure that they did not have more to say. He never shifted conversation to his own situation in life, which was complex and challenging at many levels. Instead he set himself aside, asked the right little questions here and there, and by listening he affirmed. This allowed people to connect with him, to trust his guidance, and to feel hopeful and reassured. Dr. Robbins had lots of knowledge, but he never succumbed to the temptation of using that knowledge as a form of power, intimidating and overwhelming patients or staff. He was a humble man who preferred the power of love to the love of power (as they say).

Dr. Robbins was one of the better small talk communicators I have encountered. He knew that rather little of the total information we receive from another comes from the actual words. Instead, it comes from a tone of compassionate care, and facial expression of interest and palpable concern. He spoke with his whole being, and he spoke with concern and affirmation. He almost never used words like “I,” “me,” “myself.” He was present, undistracted, and he used words as a way of healing the world. He sat down with patients and made eye contact, conveying a sense of equality and respect. When a patient complained or expressed some anger, as is inevitable, Dr. Robbins never reacted. He used carefully selected words to heal, and he exercised self-control.

Dr. Robbins was compassionate. Even when he was rushed and maybe even overwhelmed on a busy day, he was disciplined and worked hard to stay compassionate and caring in his interactions – even late in the afternoon when he was clearly getting exhausted and backed up. He decided to give the most difficult patients the benefit of the doubt and view them as really just the most frightened ones.

Dr. Robbins tried to stay in touch with a fair number of patients, sending out brief but personalized notes at Thanksgiving, and patients looked forward to these year after year.

I was speaking at the Reading Hospital in Pennsylvania a year ago. After my talk, I met a couple of patients who knew Dr. John “Jack” Templeton, who was their doctor years back at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he served diligently as a pediatric trauma surgeon. They stopped me after a speech and asked if I knew Dr. Templeton. I said that I did. And one of them said, with a huge smile, “He not only saved my life as a child, but he has sent me a card every holiday season for at least twenty-five years.” Most people know Dr. Templeton as the President of the Templeton Foundation, but these former patients knew him best for the small acts of very intentional – and in his case, prayerful – kindness that marked his life as a physician.

Henry James wrote: “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” The Dalai Lama said, “The unifying characteristic of the qualities I have described as ‘spiritual’ may be said to be some level of concern for others’ well-being.”  The proof of Dr. Robbins’ being “good” was that patients talk about how he treated them. It is in the little things. The same can be said for any “good” person.

It’s good to be good, and a lot of that is in the details.

New Big Questions:

  1. What are the social and cultural ideologies and forces that suggest to people that somehow being good is not good for you, and how can these be countered?
  2.  How can we raise children with a strong sense of a shared or common humanity that transcend narrow in-group barriers of religion, race, class, and so forth?

4 Responses

  1. DonTwoC says:

    While studies and statistics gleaned from studies are interesting, I think that the answer to this question, for an individual, can only be found through personal experimentation.  If we want to know if doing good is good for us, we do good and then evaulate its effects on us.

    My personal experiments on this subject indicate that doing good is definitely good for me.  Helping others, even is small ways, always lifts my spirits and increases my level of personal gratitude.

    It is really quite scientifc.  In any circumstance, if we can experiment on doing something good we should.  Experiments are the crown of science and we have the opportunity to participate directly. 

    • Stephen Post says:

      Dear Don:

      There is, as you state, no substitute for personal experience and experiment. It is so important that people let their lives speak to them on this point. Your personal experiment with giving indicates that is raises your spirits and increases levels of gratitude. This is really very interesting to us all. Why do you think that you feel more gratitude? Is it a matter of feeling more grateful for being alive when you can make some small beneficial difference in another individual’s life? Is it a general sense of gratitude for the universe and being in it? Is it a gratitude for the gifts you have by nature and disposition to be effective in helping others?  I do think there is a link with gratitutde, and would love to hear  alittle more from you. Do you think that there is also a link with hope?

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. I am pleased to be in touch.

      Stephen Post

      • DonTwoC says:

        Thanks for your reply.  My wife and I discussed the question of gratitude at lunch today and agreed that the center of all good is love of others and, in our case, love of God.   I think that I feel alligned with ithe source of good when I do good.   When I am so alligned I am often irrationaly happy;  happy even if I don’t have an identifiable reason to be happy.  I am grateful for knowing that doing good is, well, good.

        Not that I do good always or even most of the time, but I know when I do because of the allignment with the source of right.  I stiil get upset when I am rebuffed by someone that I am trying to help and many other flaws.

        I know beleive in God or a source of good if you will, is not considered very scientific these days. However, the experiments in trying to do good that I have completed in my life have proven beyond doubt that the source of happiness is found in at least trying to do good.  I do hold out hope that there is purpose in life and continuation of life.

        Sorry if this reply is all over the place.  It was more difficult than I thought it would be to collect these thoughts.  Have a good weekend.

        • Stephen Post says:

          The perennial tradition holds that when we contribute sincerely and generously to the lives of others (one thinks of Norman Rockwell’s picture “The Golden Rule” where everyone from every background and age is asking themselves how they can “Do Unto Others”) we do somehow move closer to the One, Ultimate Reality, Pure Love, “God,” etc. Thus, in this picture, Rockwell places a white ciruclar halo-like ring in the center using the white of people’s clothing. It is a little like surfing – you have to paddle hard and get to where you can catch the wave. Folks like Sir John Templeton and myself adhere to some notion of Unlimited Love as Ultimate Reality, and acts of goodness are one window toward this underling Presence. So yes, when we can do good and kind things intentionally, it certainly frees the mind of destructive emotions and opens the window of a quiet awareness of the divine that is within. As for science, well, we all respect and admire the best science. But there are many excellent scientists who are not materialists and who view some notion of Unlimited Love underlying the universe and goodness as plausible – not proven but plausible. I do not personally think that materialism holds purpose. Bertrand Russell was an honest materialist when he said that a human being is no different metaphysically than “pond scum.” I like the Hindu idea of “Thou art That,” that we have within us some small drop of a Supreme Consciousness of Creative Love. Hense the Hindu gretting, “Nameste,” meaning “I honor the divine in you as you do in me.”  So a great scientists need not be a materialist, and historically, most have not been. Yes, grateful because we have this mystery within us that cannot be explained merely on the basis of the human substrate.

          But this is getting a little too spiritual. On the other hand, if we are to have peace on earth, it can only come when religious arrogance gives way to something like Unlimited Love. Sir John Templeton was most grateful for the undeserved love from God for each of us, and he wrote a beautiful prayer of gratitude.