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How Giving Improves Your Health and Heals a Wounded World

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Heidi Fuller
IONS – December 2011

If the art of holiday giving is starting to feel a little more contrived this year, a little more commercial, then the science of giving has some news to bolster your holiday spirit: research suggests that not only is giving good for you—your health, your happiness, and your sense of purpose—but gift-giving activates the good things that people do to heal a wounded world. In our worldview transformation research, IONS has identified three gifts of giving—altruism, interconnectedness, and compassion—that catalyze positive human behaviors that improve communities, societies, and the planet. You may be thinking that’s a lot of glory attributed to a single pebble dropped into an ocean of need, but the work of IONS emphasizes that consciousness matters; in other words, it’s not the pebble in your hand but the ripple in your heart that ultimately creates the concentric waves of benevolence that brings warmth to those in need.

Consciousness research, which has been studying the science of giving for decades, has taught us that giving and receiving are among the most healing expressions that humans can make. They can help heal the separateness we often feel from ourselves, each other, the environment, and the sacred.

Love Knows No Bounds – Compassion

By cultivating compassion, people experience a greater connection with others that transcends the physical realm.

  • Results of our Compassionate Intention Study (nicknamed “The Love Study”) suggest that loving or compassionate intention can influence a person’s physiology, ranging from brain activity measurements to skin conductance and gut feelings. (See also the case study.)
  • Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson has shown how contemplative practices can activate the neural circuits of our brain that promote joy, fulfilling relationships, inner peace, and a sensitivity to the needs of others. (Dr. Hanson’s upcoming course, “Buddha’s Brain: Taking in the Good,” begins March 14, 2012. )
  • Dacher Keltner’s work in the fields of biology and psychology has found that humans are born with a propensity toward goodness and altruistic feelings and actions.

Good Deeds, Good Health – Altruism

Altruism describes the act of giving without expecting anything in return; it is the ultimate expression of love. According to research IONS sponsored in the late 1990s, acts of altruism can elicit the immune system response:

  • In his research on the relationship between love and health, Dr. Jeff Levin, an epidemiologist who also serves as a research consultant for the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL), along with a colleague found that a correlation exists between almost every dimension of love and patients’ descriptions of better health, more positive emotional well-being, higher self-esteem, and a sense of personal control in their lives.
  • A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine by Dr. Stephen Post, professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University and president of (IRUL), suggests a strong correlation between a person’s well-being, happiness, health, and longevity and their inclination toward altruistic acts—so long as they aren’t overwhelmed by helping too much!

Interconnectedness on Genes

An especially compelling study conducted by Dr. Dean Ornish demonstrated that feelings of increased interconnectedness with others can change gene expression, making relationships critical to health and well-being. In “Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy,” Ornish writes: “…love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well…I am not aware of any factor in medicine—not diet, not smoking, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery—that has greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness, and premature death from all causes.”

I Heal, You Heal, We Heal

In IONS’ “I to We” study, compassion and altruism were found to arise as natural consequences of experiences of interconnection and oneness. These experiences appear to lead to shifts in perspective and changes both in one’s sense of self and their relationship to others. Based on these findings, the study suggests several mechanisms by which transformative experiences and practices might influence the development of compassion and altruism.

Give for Giving’s Sake

You’ve heard the expression, “give ’til it hurts.” Now science shows you can “give ‘til it heals” and do even more good. So give generously this year to the nonprofits you believe in, and we hope that IONS is among them. Your end-of-year donation will help us continue to conduct research and provide the educational programs that are helping to heal a world in need.

1 Comment on "How Giving Improves Your Health and Heals a Wounded World"

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  1. The good feelings one gets from giving or helping someone have been called the “Helper’s High”. It is thought to be mediated by serotonin, or possibly by oxytocin, a pituitary hormone. The person who is helped also receives a feel-good shot of serotonin. And so does someone who merely watches the scene. That’s why “feelgood” movies make you feel good. About 4% of the population are thought to be sociopaths, incapable of experiencing empathy or a helper’s high. They see no reason to help anyone, so they don’t. All they have to make them feel good is the more primitive “Winner’s High” mediated by dopamine, the brain’s most ancient reward chemical. Dopamine levels can be raised by things like competition, sports, challenges, risk-taking, winning, being right, solving problems, and task-oriented behavior. These all help individual survival but do not necessarily benefit society. People who lack the capacity for empathy and the reward of helping people should not be CEOs of corporations or in other positions of power.

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