Most people want the same sorts of things: to be happier, healthier, less busy, more attractive, and wiser. We probably also all want to make a difference in some way and leave a mark on the world with our actions. Well research shows there is one very well-kept secret to all of the above: giving, service, kindness, compassion... Sounds surprising? It does to most of us. However, service-oriented invidividuals have insight about fulfillment that others just haven't caught onto yet! Here’s why you may want to include more service into your life:
It will make you wealthier and less busy!
Why do people find community service so fulfilling? Because living a life that involves compassion and service will literally make you feel like your life is more full! Full of what? Time and money... Studies shows that people who donate actually feel wealthier overall and another fascinating study shows that volunteering makes us feel like we have more time. Giving facilitates a greater sense of ease and abundance, and isn't that what we all want?
It will make you healthier!
Research shows that people who engage in helping behavior are healthier and even live longer. In one recent study, scientists found that a more meaning-based life even impacts you at the cellular level by reducing inflammation rates. In another study conducted on more than 800 people and spearheaded by the University at Buffalo’s Michael Poulin, researchers found that helping others protects people against the effects of stress on premature death. In other words, engaging in acts of kindness buffer you against the stress in your life. Motivation, however, seems to play an important role in predicting whether a compassionate lifestyle exerts a beneficial impact on health. Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, discovered that people who engaged in volunteerism lived longer than their non-volunteering peers — but only if their reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving i.e. though you may know it will do your good, your intentions in service should be altruistic.
It will make you happy as a clam!
We often think we’ll gain our greatest happiness from things like dessert, money, the love of our life, or sex. Sure, we do. But how do these things measure up to service? A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institute of Health showed that the "pleasures centers" in the brain, i.e. the parts of our brains that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, sex) are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves! In fact giving to others increases well-being above and beyond spending money on ourselves! In a revealing experiment published in Science by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, participants received a sum of money. Half of the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves and the other half were told to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves. This is true even for infants! A study by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues at the University of British Columbia shows that, even in children as young as age 2, giving treats to others increases their happiness more than receiving treats themselves.
It will make you sexy!
Marketing companies may try to tell us that the secret to finding our soulmate lies in our beauty, clothing, or car brand. However, both men and women agree that a major secret to attractiveness is a kind heart! Research by evolutionary psychologist David Buss has shown that both men and women value kindness above all other traits and potential partners. Think about it, don’t you want a partner that’s got a kickass warm and loving heart? Helping behavior is one of the greatest signs of kindness.
It will make you wise!
It is very easy to get lost in the bubble of our own lives. By contributing to the lives of others, we receive so much in return. We learn about others' lives, the challenges they face, and the resilience with which they approach life. As a consequence, our own lives are enriched, we are inspired, and the gratitude we feel for all that we have is enhanced. Research shows that gratitude and a sense of meaning are tremendous determinants of happiness and well-being and that it reduces depression and anxiety.
It will transform you into a ChangeMaker!
So yes, giving may just be the most selfish act you could do. But it’s also the most beautiful, inspiring, and community-transforming act you can do. Research shows that when you help others, you uplift and inspire those around you. They, in turn, start engaging in helping behaviors. A study shows that just one act of kindness can literally start a virtuous cascades of acts of care, kindness and compassion. Yes that piece of chocolate may lead to temporary happiness, as will that raise, but don’t forget the secret to lasting fulfillment,and the impact it will have not just on you but the world.
Check out our Center's Compassion Week San Francisco 2014 for a full week of science-related events about giving, kindness, and compassion: stanford.edu/compassionweek
Emma is the founder of Fulfillment Daily, science-based news for a happier life.
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© 2014 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.