Is Virtue Really Its Own Reward?
Doing the right thing doesn’t always get rewarded. (Oh, you've noticed that!?) In fact, good intentions and actions often backfire, as reflected in the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” To quote Ecclesiastes, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve.”
But sometimes justice and virtue do prevail. And virtue, it turns out, can be both its own reward and the source of other positive outcomes as well. Recent research plus a variety of studies from past decades suggest that acting on higher values not only has intrinsic rewards but will benefit your health and well-being in other ways, too.
Do the Right Thing and Reap the Benefits
Here are examples of virtuous actions that offer priceless rewards:
1. Find your purpose in life, and sleep like an angel.
Many of us think of insomnia as one of the liabilities of getting older. And it’s true that some sleep problems are more common in older adults. But in a study of 823 seniors, those who had a purpose in life, as identified on a 10-question survey, were 63% less likely to have sleep apnea and 52% less likely to have restless legs syndrome. These individuals may also have had better sleep quality because their sense of higher purpose acted as a preventive against stress and anxiety. Although the study was done on older adults, researchers believe that the results are likely to apply to the general population.
“It seems having a reason to get up in the morning may be key to helping us sleep better at night,” PT blogger Lydia Denworth writes here.
2. Even small acts of generous behavior will make you happier.
Past research studies have shown that spending money on others leads to more happiness than spending money on yourself. In fact, in fMRI images, generosity lights up the brain with a "warm glow," according to Christopher Bergland's blog here.
But how much giving does it take to feel that "warm glow?" Would people have to give more than they could really afford to get it?
No. In a recent series of studies, researchers found that even small acts of generosity produced the "warm glow" of happiness. In fact, giving away small sums of money led to as much happiness as giving away larger sums. As the researchers point out, there’s no need to be overly self-sacrificing, or to give until it hurts, to receive a happiness bonus.
3. Performing random acts of kindness boosts your happiness level.
“Random acts of kindness” are spontaneous behaviors that benefit others or make them happy often at some small inconvenience or cost to you. In a 2004 study, researchers asked college students to perform five random acts of kindness per week over six weeks. Acts could include: dropping coins into a stranger’s expired parking meter, donating blood, talking with a friend about the friend’s problem, visiting a sick friend or relative, or writing a thank-you note.
The results? The “random acts” group received a boost in feelings of happiness, while the control group actually experienced a decrease in happiness.
4. Expressions of gratitude will increase both happiness and other positive emotions.
Activities such as writing a gratitude letter and delivering it in person; reviewing “Three Good Things” that happened to you during the day; and keeping a gratitude journal have been shown in numerous studies to be reliable happiness boosters. In addition, the practice of gratitude increases other positive emotions, blocks negative emotions like envy and resentment, and leads to a more optimistic attitude. Two words to add meaning and power to your life? "Thank you." For details, see this blog.
5. Good deeds give you “the helper’s high.”
Your good deeds instantly flood your brain with endorphins, feel-good chemicals that give you a natural high. As Sherrie Bourg Carter points out here, helping others can also help you appreciate what you have, improve your health, and put your own problems into perspective. (For caveats, see here as well.)
6. Generous actions attract potential mates and sexual partners.
A 2016 study, entitled "Altruism predicts mating success in humans," indicated that generosity was positively correlated with having a lifetime sexual partner, more casual sex partners, and more sex within relationships.
Many studies have demonstrated that volunteering lights up the path to happiness. According to the Harvard Help Guide, older people who help and support others live longer than those who do not. And it seems that the more you volunteer, the happier you will be.
But aren't there limits to how much helping can benefit you? The answer appears to be "yes." In a recent study of 500 older adults, those who provided “occasional childcare,” whether to their own grandchildren or to other young children, lived longer than those who did not. The researchers cautioned, however, that too much caregiving--such as by custodial grandparents--led to stress and resulted in negative effects on physical and mental health.
This study shows that we each need to find our own “sweet spot” for how and how much we help others.Too little helping, and you could be mired in self-absorption.Too much helping, and you could suffer from burnout.
The Virtues of Self-Care
In this blog, I’ve focused on well-documented studies that feature altruistic actions that help both the helpee and the helper. In another category, but still important, are self-care actions like exercising, healthy eating, and leading a smoke-free life. These healthy behaviors bring a wealth of benefits to those who practice them including a longer life, brain health, better memory, protection from premature aging, less risk of chronic illnesses, mood lift, better mental health, less depression and anxiety…and the list goes on and on.
While not strictly altruistic in intent, healthy behaviors cause positive ripple effects for those around you. Your Significant Others benefit when you are happy and healthy. Your society benefits when you are healthy enough to make a contribution.
A Happy Ending
While the injustices, hardships, and suffering of this world often seem overwhelming, it's nice to know that people who help others help themselves as well. So-called "do-gooders" are often perceived as naive, but these 7 studies validate their efforts.
The 7 studies also show that you don’t have to be a paragon of virtue to help others and get a happiness boost yourself. Small actions can have powerful positive effects. At least in these instances, virtue IS it's own reward--and more!
(c) Meg Selig, 2017. All rights reserved.
Bergland, C., "Small Acts of Generous Behavior Can Make Your Brain Happier"
Random acts. From my book Changepower: 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, (Routledge, 2009), p. 221, describing this study: Sheldon, K.M. and Lyubomirsky, S. “Achieving Sustainable New Happiness,” in A. Linley and S. Joseph (eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2004), 135-7.
"Purpose in life by day linked to better sleep at night," Science Daily
"Generous people live happier lives," Science Daily
Carter, S. B. “Helper’s High: The Benefits and Risks of Altruism”
"Selfless people have more sex, study finds," Science Daily
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