Here’s the science behind creating a chain reaction of goodness
Though economists and grumps have long argued to the contrary, many spiritual traditions teach us that, at our core, we are loving, generous, and kind. Recent research confirms this idea. Michael Tomasello and other scientists at the prestigious Max Planck Institute have found that even infants too young to have been conditioned by the conventions of politeness will automatically engage in helpful behavior. Research conducted by Dale Miller at the Stanford Business School shows that adults, too, are instinctively driven to help others. The difference between children and adults is that adults will often restrain themselves from this natural instinct because they are concerned with what others will think. We hesitate to follow our natural instinct to be loving, generous, and kind because we fear others will believe we are acting out of selfish motivation. And, of course, we may fear the same thing — that our natural drives to be helpful are secretly selfish — and so we hold back. Are we being selfish? Should we restrain ourselves?
University of Michigan researcher Stephanie Brown, in a study of over 400 elderly people, found that those who engaged in more helping behavior were healthier, happier, and lived longer than others. Of course, one reason for these findings may be that people who are healthier have more opportunity to be of help to others. Data indicates, however, that positive emotions and social bonding (both a consequence of service) have protective effects on health that may explain these findings.
So helping others is a natural instinct that helps us to be healthier, happier, and to live longer. So, yes, it is selfish — and it’s extremely silly to hold back.
How Helping Is Contagious
Almost 40 years ago, when Bob Curry returned from serving in Vietnam, all he wanted was to return to a normal life. To the contrary, he found his life shattered by debilitating flashbacks. Not knowing anything about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Bob thought he was becoming mentally ill and began to self-medicate with alcohol. He soon became alcoholic, lost his job and his home, and devastated his family. He found himself living on the streets. One day, Bob ended up in a car accident that took someone’s life. Charged with homicide, Bob finally hit rock bottom. During the two years leading up to his trial, however, Bob was amazed that other veterans, his family, and doctors from the VA hospital all rallied to help him. As a consequence of their support and determination, Bob was the first person to be acquitted with “not guilty by reason of insanity” for PTSD.
As Bob recounts the tale, the veterans and doctors who pitched in to save him had no reason to do so. “They didn’t know me, and usually people don’t want to associate with you when you are in so much trouble.” Their help not only saved him from jail but also inspired him to overcome his PTSD and alcoholism and to co-found Dryhootch, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping veterans with PTSD. Headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the main focus of Dryhootch is setting up coffee shops run by veterans, as places of community, healing, and education about PTSD.
Nowadays, you can often find Bob surrounded by young veterans recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have benefitted from the Dryhootch community and are now, in turn, volunteering to help other veterans. Bob shares that although the past cannot be erased, the work he is doing with Dryhootch has given him some solace. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
The Chain Reaction of Helping
Social scientists James Fowler of UC San Diego and Nicolas Christakis of Harvard are famous for their work in studying social networks. They have devised several experiments that show how helping is contagious — that acts of generosity and kindness impact others around them, and that others, in turn, act with generosity in a chain reaction of goodness. You may have seen one of the news reports about chain reactions that occur when someone pays for the coffee of the person behind him at a drive-through window or pays for the person behind her at a tollbooth. People keep the generous behavior going for hours. You can try this experiment yourself.
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