There is no shortage of blessings for which we should express appreciation. Solid health. Supportive spouse. Loving family. Long-time friends. Thriving business. Great success. Acclaim. Good fortune. It turns out that giving thanks is good not only for the people receiving that appreciation (after all, it feels good to be told “thank you”) but also for the person expressing gratitude. In fact, gratitude seems to work like a “booster shot” for relationships. This goes for relationships at work as well. An employee expressing gratitude for a boss’ generosity makes both the boss and employee feel better. The same is true for a boss expressing appreciation for an employee’s hard work. Both boss and employee feel better. Giving thanks — the actual act of expressing it — is mutually beneficial.
People should take time to count blessings and be thankful every day. Indeed, taking it even a step further, perhaps the best way to show genuine gratitude for abundant blessings is to pay it forward by doing good and being the good we want to see in the world. It may be that the best way to show real appreciation for blessings and kindness is to be a blessing and show kindness to others…. and give others reasons to also be grateful. That would complete the circle of gratitude. And, it turns out that this also could also be good not just for the recipients but for the do-gooders too!
Paying It Forward
Everyone can do some good in the world, no matter their own personal circumstances. Rich or poor. Healthy or sick. Able or disabled. Busy or inactive. Just about every person can do something good for someone else if they truly put their mind to it.
Case in point. Capt. Justin Fitch, who is fighting a battle with colon cancer, is devoting what energy he has left to saving the lives of fellow soldiers. At only 32 years old, Fitch — the commander of the Headquarters Research Development Detachment at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center — is facing medical retirement from the Army and has been told by his doctors that he only has a few months to live. So far, he has endured 40-plus chemotherapy treatments, six major surgeries and a number of smaller procedures. Despite the pain of his illness, Fitch has spent the past year trying to increase awareness of and raise money for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who are contemplating suicide. Even more than his illness, Fitch is pained by the over 8,000 U.S. veterans who take their own lives annually (more than all the U.S. service members who have been killed in action since 2001). So Fitch is doing his part by doing 12-hour team ruck marches with the “Carry the Fallen” campaign. So far, he and his “Team Minuteman” have raised over $114,000 for the “Active Heroes” organization, which is developing a 144-acre retreat in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, for veterans at risk of suicide. So why is someone so sick and facing death still doing so much for others? Fitch, who also overcame PTSD, is paying it forward. Despite multiple chemotherapy treatments each week which leave him tired, nauseated, dehydrated and sleep-deprived, Fitch is driven to do good for others. He has found the time and energy despite his circumstances. As he said, “I do what I can in the short time that I have.”
Built To Do Good
People like Fitch, and others who selflessly do great acts of kindness for others such as donating an organ or risking one’s own life to save someone else, are dubbed “extraordinary altruists.” Extraordinary altruists are people who are willing to accept great risk or give generously of themselves – their time, money, and even their body — for someone else’s good and with no benefit to themselves. These are the ultimate do-gooders.
So what makes a person this selfless and giving? Abigail Marsh, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University and one of the country’s leading researchers in altruism, sought to answer this very question. To understand acts of extraordinary altruism, Marsh studied the brains of people who had donated a kidney to a stranger. Of the 39 people who took part in the study, 19 were actual kidney donors. Marsh took structural images to measure the size of different parts of the participants’ brains and then asked the participants to run through a series of computer tests while their brains were being scanned using functional MRI. In one test, they were asked to look at pictures of different facial expressions, including happiness, fear, anger, sadness and surprise. While most of the tests didn’t find any differences between the brains of the altruistic donors and the people who had not been donors, there was one significant difference. There was a significant difference in a part of the brain called the amygdala (Latin for almond), an almond-shaped cluster of nerves that is important in processing emotion. The amygdala in the altruistic kidney donors was significantly larger than those who had never donated an organ. Additionally, the amygdala in the altruists was extremely sensitive to the pictures of people displaying fear or distress. What is not known by scientists is whether doing good causes the amygdala to increase in size, much like a muscle that grows the more it is used, or whether an unusually large amygdala is what contributes to or causes a person to be more giving and selfless.
Do Good; Live Longer
That said, even people with average-sized amygdalas can do good. What’s more, there’s something in it for the person doing good. It seems that doing good for others is actually good not only for the person receiving the kindness or generosity but also for the do-gooder. This has been proven in over 50 scientific studies that looked at the effects of benevolence, compassion, generosity, and kindness.
One study by a team of Cornell University researchers that began in 1956 followed 427 married women with children for 30 years. The initial assumption was that housewives with more children would be under greater stress and would die earlier than women with few children. Instead, they found that numbers of children, education, class, and work status did not affect longevity at all. What did impact longevity was doing good. After three decades, researchers found that 52% of those who did no volunteer work had experienced a major illness as compared with only 36% who had done some volunteer work. Two other large studies found that older adults who did volunteer work lived longer than non-volunteers. Another large study found a 44% reduction in early death among those who volunteered a lot. In fact, volunteering had a greater effect on longevity than exercising four times a week. So all those folks heading to the gym every day hoping to stave off disease and extend life might think about going to do some volunteer work instead.
Doing Good: The Ultimate Stress-Buster
If it seems odd or suspicious that doing good helps the person doing the good as much or more than the recipient of the good deed, here’s why. Doing a good deed reduces the stress of the person doing the good deed. That helps the person avoid the harmful physiological changes that occur when stressed, such as releasing hormones like cortisol and increasing the body’s heart and breathing rates. When this stress response remains “on” for an extended period, the immune and cardiovascular systems are adversely affected — weakening the body’s defenses, making it more susceptible to abnormal cellular changes. These changes can ultimately lead to a downward spiral — abnormal cellular changes that cause premature aging. Also, studies of telomeres — the end-caps of our genes — show that long-term stress can shorten those end-caps, and shortened end-caps are linked with early death. By doing good deeds, the body is apparently able to turn off stress. That would certainly explain why those who volunteered the most lived longer.
While giving thanks is a good thing, it might be an even better thing for people to identify a good deed or kindness they can do or a charity where they can volunteer their time and talents. No matter the circumstances, everyone is able to do something good for someone else. Paying it forward is not only a great way to express genuine gratitude for blessings, it also a great way to do good for others and for oneself all at the same time.
Quote of the Week
“Doing good holds the power to transform us on the inside, and then ripple out in ever-expanding circles that positively impact the world at large.” Shari Arison
© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.