Journals

There’s More than Good in Goodness

There is more to altruism and kindness than the humanity of it. Research continues to pile up that confirms what many of us can already testify to: there is good in goodness.

Researchers at Cornell University conducted a 30-year longitudinal study that began in 1956. Their subjects were 427 wives and mothers who engaged in weekly volunteer work helping other people. The findings were remarkable: even after adjusting for baseline health status, and despite marital status, occupation, social class, education, or number of children, these women lived longer and reaped rewards of better physical functioningthan their non-altruistic counterparts.

Mind Over Matter

But there’s more. Not only is it good to do good, but just thinking about doing good has been shown to have positive physiological results.

David McClelland, a renowned behavioral psychologist, studied the effect of something he termed the “Mother Teresa Effect” on subjects in his groundbreaking research at Harvard. He found that, when watching films about Mother Teresa, as she tended to orphaned children in Calcutta, subjects experienced increased levels of salivary immunoglobulin—a potentially protective antibody that may play a very significant role in defense against harmful bacteria.

Help Others, Help Yourself

The best part of altruism is that it’s almost always a two-way street.

Consider, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s stance on compensation: “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”

This was a position held very close to the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. The basic concept of having one person help another who shared the same problem formed the basis of the 12 Step philosophy, where service to others, along with deference to a higher power is the key to recovery.

There is more living proof of the tremendously fulfilling mental health benefits to be found in helping therapy. Magnolia Clubhouse Community, at Cleveland’s University Circle, is a wonderful, real-life model in Ohio. Their members are at least 18 years of age, and most have extensive histories of mental illness. Each of them lives close to the Clubhouse, either in small apartments or with family.

They come to the Clubhouse, which is a red brick mansion that has been converted for this purpose. From there, they determine which helping activities they want to get involved in. Nobody has any specific activities or chores assigned to them; rather, each person chooses which activities they wish to perform, and for how long.

Choices usually revolve around day-to-day cleaning, groundskeeping, meal preparation, and housekeeping: all activities that keep the Clubhouse operating and running smoothly. There are usually around 200 members at the Clubhouse, and they all participate in this self-help program that may be considered a throwback of an era of “moral treatment.”

For another example of giving in the world, consider this: Commerce Casino in California also has a well-earned reputation for giving back to their community. It’s no secret that many casinos are better known for taking than for giving, which makes it all the more inspiring that Commerce Casino has instead given back more than $15 million to their local tax base.

A Greater Good      

In reality, fewer things warm the heart more than knowing that we are contributing to a greater good—that is, something bigger than ourselves. This is the principle of fulfillment: We humans feel more fulfilled, and more complete in our own lives, when we do something for other people. This concept of giving back, of reaching out to others with a part of who we are and what we do—not with money, or financial means, but with a piece of our personal selves—is the component of contribution that brings the intrinsic reward of fulfillment and satisfaction. We feel accomplished in a very different way than when we purchase something for someone or give them a handout; We haven’t just provided them with an object, or with something someone else values—instead, we have provided them with a piece of ourselves. And that runs much deeper and lasts much longer.

It’s been said that if we truly want to help feed a person, we need to teach them how to fish—not just give them a fish. When we live our lives with goodness in our hearts, it doesn’t simply end with a donation or a gift. We accomplish something more, we create something richer than that, and help not only ourselves, as the research continues to demonstrate, but we also leave a small piece of ourselves for the taking, all in the name of goodness. And that’s a philosophy worth living by.

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