The Brain and Body When Serving Others
The body is a machine, and the brain is the smart computer that operates it. Giving behaviors and attitudes are the super-refined unleaded fuel that allows your body and brain to function at its best. When you “run on altruism,” you get many of the same biological benefits of exercising, eating right, and getting a good night’s sleep. The evidence shows that volunteering, focusing on others, and giving time and money might be as good for your body and brain as CrossFit and the Mediterranean diet.
We can’t say that, on altruism, you can lose twenty pounds in twenty days. We can say that altruism sets you up for a harmonious deluge of hormones and neurotransmitters that trigger good feelings and help prevent or reverse burnout, anxiety, and depression, forms of psychological distress that rob you of joy and life satisfaction. We can say that there are bona fide associations between other-focus and lower chronic stress and systemic inflammation, which can be contributing factors to poor health, e.g., heart disease and cancer.
By taking your Live to Give prescription, you are setting up your brain and body to protect you from neuropsychological and physiological damage. Abundant research shows that if you perform random acts of kindness every day, it will not only reduce your stress, anxiety, and depression, but it will make you—as well as the person you’ve helped—feel calmer, healthier, and happier. By focusing on someone else, you can change your biology for the better from the inside out, from your brain down to your toes.
#1 Start Small
There is an evidence-based prescription that moves the needle for you and anyone else. To fill the prescription for this wonder drug, you do not need to quit your job, move to a third world country and dig wells, become an inner-city math teacher, spend every weekend ladling soup for the homeless, or donate a massive chunk of your income to charity.
Total life upheaval is not necessary. There is no barrier to entry to become other-focused. In fact, to become a Live to Giver, the change required is more mental than practical at first. Instead of just moving through your life, stuck within-ward, look around for opportunities in your life now to serve others. Once you start searching for them, opportunities will appear. In fact, they’ll be everywhere, and will seem limitless. And if you start taking those opportunities to serve others, your Live to Give benefits will start accumulating immediately.
Simply make the decision to give, help, care, and connect more, and you could be happier, healthier, and more successful for it, no matter what you are currently experiencing.
#2 Be Thankful
Feeling and expressing gratitude is a great way to resonate with the other-focus frequency. Once you start feeling and expressing “thanks,” the Live to Give signal and the message it transmits—serve others and you’ll be happy!—get stronger. When your brain is tuned in to the gratitude station, you’re more likely to give and help others.
Authentic Happiness author Martin Seligman came up with a practice called “gratitude visits.” How it works: think of someone from your past for whom you didn’t express sufficient gratitude way back when, and then pay them a visit to express it fully now. He’s found that it increases happiness and well-being for both the giver and receiver. If you can’t afford a plane ticket to see your ninth-grade English teacher who retired in the Bahamas, you can always do the economy version of the gratitude visit, and just write a letter.
The very idea of paying a “gratitude visit” might make you a bit queasy. Like, how awkward would it be to knock on someone’s door and say, “It really meant a lot when you stood up for me on the playground thirty years ago.…” It’d be super embarrassing for both of you, if you show up out of the blue and bleed emotion all over them. No one wants that, right? That fear is a version of “ego bias,” the belief that your own opinions about what others may or may not think about you is correct. Naturally, an ego bias is self-focused and therefore not a Live to Give mindset, and, importantly, science shows it’s usually wrong.
#3 Be Purposeful
We are constantly inspired by the uplifting actions taken by everyday people who purposefully help others and, in so doing, improve their own well-being. Research has found that even small kind acts enhance one’s sense of meaning in one’s life. All it takes to find purpose opportunities is to pay attention to what’s going on. And if there is personal or communal outcry for help, give your time, talent, or treasure to fill that need, and your heart will grow ten sizes.
In the early days of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, shot availability was scarce and in high demand. It was nearly impossible to secure an appointment. It was especially hard for non-tech-savvy older people who couldn’t navigate various states’ vax finder online portals. Grassroots volunteers nationwide saw the need to help the elderly—those most in need of a vaccine—to get their shots. An article in Scientific American by Marla Broadfoot reported on teenage cousins from Kentucky who set up a Facebook page to walk seven hundred seniors through the verification process and help them book their appointments. A group of teachers from Maryland used social media to find Spanish-speaking seniors in need of aid and scrolled through dozens of vaccine finder sites to slot in more than four hundred names that they’d collected. A Google engineer recognized how bewildering it was for regular people to find a place to get a shot, and, with the help of two hundred volunteers, created a website that tracked every available appointment in the entire state of California and served tens of thousands per day. The site founder, Manish Goregaokar, told Broadfoot, “This may be the most impactful thing I ever do. I’ve done other volunteering, but this directly translates to lives saved. It’s humbling and scary to be in that position.”
The Live to Give prescription for being purposeful: get out of your own head. Stop rushing through life in pursuit of acclaim and success, and open your eyes to the big world we all live in. People right in your path need your help, and it doesn’t take much to serve them. But to do that, and reap the benefits of giving, you have to see them, and make that quantum leap of courage to ask and then help.
#4 Find Common Ground
Consider how the other person feels, but be careful. Some thinkers on the subject raise a caution flag about being irrationally empathetic. Paul Bloom, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University, wrote a book called Against Empathy that warned readers not to overdo it. Too much empathy can lead to big trouble and nonsensical decisions. For example, if you feel empathy for, say, the victim of a political assassination, a corrupt politician can exploit that empathy, turn it into red-hot “out-group” anger, and all of the sudden, a single criminal incident can start a war. Years later, we would wonder how we got started down the road that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. Bloom makes the argument for “rational compassion” instead, which we interpret to mean, don’t use empathy without reason and sound judgment.
Look for opportunities to be empathetic far and wide, by talking to people you’d otherwise not come into contact with and educating yourself about other cultures, at home and abroad. If you can make at least one friend in an out-group, you’ll have more empathy for the entire population, you’ll be more helpful and inclusive overall, and you’ll think of yourself in a different (better, happier) way.
#5 See It
If you keep your eyes wide open for examples of people helping people, you will be amazed by the kind acts that are happening all around you, and you will be inspired to join in. Science confirms that people who observe helping and giving wind up doing more of the same themselves, and not just the specific behaviors observed, but all sorts of other kind acts as well.
You’ve heard the saying: monkey see, monkey do. But for humans (unlike monkeys), watching/doing generous acts goes much deeper than mere imitation. It can also translate to how one feels about doing generous acts. According to a Harvard University/Stanford University study about “prosocial conformity,” participants watched others donate to charity, and decided how much to donate themselves. Predictably, those who saw others give a lot gave a lot; those who observed stingy donations gave paltry sums. But the really exciting finding was this: when they were given an opportunity to write a note of encouragement to another study participant who was going through a tough time, those who observed the generous donations also wrote notes that showed more empathy and support. Prosocial conformity went beyond the mirroring of the behavior (monetary donations); it extended to the participants’ feelings for others in need. If we see and mirror other-serving behaviors, we are more likely to adopt a Live to Give mindset as well.
The Live to Give prescription for seeing it: To motivate and inspire your own giving behavior, look for individuals to relate to and for proof of the impact of your altruism. The simplest way to get both of those conditions is to serve others in your own community, where you can interact with people directly and see with your own eyes how you are helping them.
Also, you’ll be a more effective giver if you have a clear, detailed vision and game plan for how to realize your altruism goals. When things play out the way you saw them in your mind, you get a hit of serotonin just by meeting your own expectations.
The Live to Give prescription for elevation: Model moral excellence in service to others and intentionally gravitate toward people and organizations who do the same.
Be very careful selecting who you associate with in both your professional and personal life. Choose to work for a company that prioritizes people over one that only cares about the bottom line. If you are in a position to do so, focus on hiring people who do the same.
Avoid toxic “it’s all about me” Live to Getters. Think of them as the Live to Giver’s Kryptonite. The more you are exposed to their selfishness, the weaker your altruism will become. And once you hit the bottom on that vertical dimension of moral excellence, you can wave goodbye to your other-serving longevity, happiness, and success benefits.
If you catch rudeness, shake it off by doing kind acts, and you might even cure rudeness in the original offender. Gravitate toward people who do kind things for others and are happy about it, and you’ll boost your own happiness just by being within a mile of them.
And whenever your own giving behaviors seem to slide, self-administer an elevation booster by affirming, “I’m a Live to Giver, dammit!,” watch that Thai TV commercial called “Unsung Hero” on YouTube, then go outside and elevate your little corner of the world.
#7 Know Your Power
You don’t have to be a doctor in an ICU or ED to wield incredible outward power. Once you fully realize the power you have to impact people’s lives with kindness in their time of need, you’ll want to use it. And when you fully appreciate how it echoes over time—you’ll use it differently and you’ll feel humbled and awed by it. It’ll change how you experience life. Perhaps before you tapped your outward power, you didn’t understand how much you affect people’s lives with small acts of kindness and compassion. But when that sinks in, your place in the world, your purpose, becomes clear. By taking on the responsibility and recognizing the power of the Live to Give echo chamber, the benefits for you will be that much more powerful as well.
It’s actually an amplification of everything that you’ve read in this book about the power of serving others to impact your health, happiness, and success. When you realize that science shows that five years from now, the people you help are going to remember the good you did for them and feel elevated by it, you’ll be that much more purposeful in serving others. Conviction amplifies intention and the effects. Every time you think about it, no matter what level of power you have put out there, you get a benefit.
Serving others is more powerful than you’ve ever imagined. And the sheer magnitude of it keeps coming back, to you and to them. It’s not like posting a Snapchat, there and gone in seconds. Science supports the idea that a kind act can echo forever. You have done something that another person may never forget.
The Live to Give prescription for knowing your power: Serving others echoes and revisits, and goes on and on, and therefore is more impactful than we even realize. You are powerful. Being empathetic, compassionate, grateful, caring, and kind are a human being’s greatest strengths. But only if we use them. Don’t delay.