Our world is moving faster than ever before, constantly bombarding us with distractions.
How can we remain stress-free in the face of cultural pressures to react instantly to communications and demands?
We cannot simply turn our backs on the world: as we have seen, being isolated and self-absorbed increases stress. Isolation is a predictor of early-onset illness.
By contrast, we know that people who give are healthier and happier and live longer. Giving of ourselves is a stress reliever that yields immediate emotional benefits, bringing meaning to our lives.
One of the simplest ways to give is through empathy.
Empathy allows us to enter the world of another. It allows us to take a mental vacation from ourselves, from our worries, our stressors, and our preoccupations. In the process, we make meaningful connections that produce the health-giving neurochemicals we need to manage our stress and improve our lives.
Giving and empathy provide us with opportunities to nurture our innate goodness.
We display goodness when we are more concerned with the welfare of others (selflessness) than when we are self-absorbed with our own preoccupations. Studies from the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Michigan have confirmed that giving is more powerful than receiving in terms of reducing mortality.
A fascinating study by the psychologist Paul Wink of Wellesley College followed high school students for over fifty years. He concluded that goodness expressed through giving in the teen years predicted good physical and mental health all the way into adulthood.
It’s in Our Genes
We are genetically programmed to thrive by being empathic and altruistic. The human species has survived thanks to its natural inclination to connect, collaborate, and relate. In the last few years, neuroscientists and social psychologists have provided ample empirical evidence for Darwin’s assertion that sympathy is our strongest instinct.
By doing good, we not only help others, we help ourselves as well.
People who volunteer their time and energy to help others in need are known to experience the pleasurable feeling known as “helper’s high.” It leads to a release of endorphins that is beneficial to the helper’s health.
In his classic study of this phenomenon, Allan Luks, director of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of New York City, found that people who help others on a regular basis are ten times more likely to be healthy than people who do not.
By adding meaning and purpose to our lives, helping others improves our sense of self-worth and reduces tension.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo studied one thousand people who had experienced highly stressful situations, such as divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one. These factors correlated significantly with the development of a host of medical problems including cancer, diabetes, back pain, and heart disease. However, among those who spent significant time giving to others, there was no correlation between stressful events and health issues.
Doing good does us good in the following ways:
- It helps us remain members in good standing of our circles of connection and care (including our families, groups of friends, and religious congregations). A connected life is a good and healthy life.
- It allows us to reap the psycho-physiological rewards of intimacy. The stress hormone cortisol rises sixfold in mammals after thirty minutes of isolation: one study showed that helping others predicted reduced mortality due to the association between stress and mortality.
- It increases our connections to others. Generous people are likely to receive more respect from their peers; selfish people elicit lack of regard and are often avoided.
- It induces others to reciprocate. Transcending our own needs and desires in order to tend to the needs and desires of others turns out to be a very effective way of addressing our own needs and desires. The instinctive inclination to match kindness with kindness can pave the way to lasting relationships.
We all benefit from rediscovering goodness and putting it back at the center of our lives. When we are doing good, our lives are good. When our lives are good, we are happy and free of stress. Yet many of us have unwittingly suppressed our goodness as a result of stress. Understanding how we have lost our way and regaining our natural balance through doing and feeling good, by constructively resolving past hurts, is a journey well worth taking.
The irony is that individuals who may think they are interested only in their own happiness still need to contribute to a healthy culture where goodness prevails. When we engage others in an attitude of goodness, we do what we are biologically programmed to do.
When we bond through the relational qualities that goodness embodies, we experience a release of oxytocin, the near-magical neurotransmitter with the following properties:
· reduces anxiety and cortisol levels
· helps you live longer
· aids in recovery from illness and injury
· promotes a sense of calm and well-being
· increases generosity and empathy
· protects against heart disease
· modulates inflammation
· reduces cravings for addictive substances
· creates bonding and an increase in trust of others
· decreases fear and creates a feeling of security
In addition to conferring these benefits, knowing how to express goodness makes us more energetic and more resilient. It gives us more skills with which to manage daily living. We are not limited in our pursuits of knowledge, and we are not limited in the array of people we can befriend.
Wisdom consists not in pursuing happiness directly, but rather in building a good life on a foundation of goodness.
Happiness comes as a by-product of that process. If there is a shortcut to happiness, it is through goodness.
Impediments to Goodness
Although we are all born with the ability to care for others, circumstances often prevent us from doing so. Many of us have suppressed our innate goodness because of personal setbacks.
When our hearts are broken, when the stressors of life are overwhelming, we often lose our innate goodness. We are reluctant to open up to others for fear of being hurt again. Our traumas become permanent negative inclinations that define our character and, with it, our destiny. The good news is that we can work on our past hurts and recover what we thought we had lost forever.
A goodness breakthrough happens when we realize that goodness, empathy, and compassion are the most important things in life, and we change our lives accordingly.
Goodness breakthroughs remove the obstacles to the proper functioning of our innate positive inclinations.
The role models and situations we are exposed to early in life set the stage for our innate goodness to flourish or wither.
If we have experienced extreme misfortunes, such as being bullied, molested, or abused, our hurt shapes our self-perception and our outlook on life. We mistakenly take responsibility for our life-changing adversities, feeling bad for something that in fact is out of our control.
Shame and self-loathing usually accompany our sense of helplessness. When those responsible for our care turn out to be perpetrators of violence, or when the peers we look to for validation turn out to be cruel and sadistic, our world becomes smaller and smaller. Bias and distorted thinking then result in a belief that humans cannot be trusted and that the only way to survive is to avoid any unguarded sharing of ourselves.
Less traumatic experiences can also impair our natural ability to express goodness. Growing up in a family stressed by financial difficulties, living in an unsafe neighborhood, having sick parents, or being a child of divorce are all circumstances that can squelch goodness and create a stressful way of living.
Goodness breakthroughs take place when we:
· acknowledge our emotions, especially fear, anger, and grief
· have the courage to be vulnerable
· express ourselves to those who possess goodness
· absorb feedback without being defensive
· use empathy to understand those who hurt us
· move away from self-absorption and negativity
· forgive ourselves
When we follow these steps (and we may have to repeat them frequently, depending on the depth of the emotional hurts we experienced), we are very likely to return to a basic feeling of goodness.
I have worked with many people who have changed the way they talk to themselves. I have seen that changing self-talk results in better self-care, less stress, a better disposition, and ultimately being better to others.
Excerpted from the book The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience. Copyright © 2016 by Arthur P. Ciaramicoli. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.
About the author
Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, EdD, PhD, is the author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and the chief medical officer of soundmindz.org, a popular mental health platform. He has been on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and chief psychologist of Metrowest Medical Center. The author of several books, including The Power of Empathy and Performance Addiction, he lives with his family in Massachusetts.
Visit him online at www.balanceyoursuccess.com.
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