Monday Mornings with Madison

Warning: Selfishness Is Bad For Your Health

In a dog-eat-dog, competitive marketplace, many people develop a ‘me first’ mentality.  Those adopting this mentality choose to do what is best for himself or herself first and foremost and then — if time, energy and resources allow — might deign to help others.  And, it seems that this ‘looking out for number one’ attitude is becoming increasingly pervasive in today’s modern society.  To many, this egotistical approach to life is justified as the best way to ‘get ahead.’  The question is:  does selfishness pay?

Religious and spiritual leaders have forever warned about the perils of selfishness and touted the virtues of altruism.  But now there is mounting scientific evidence that selfishness is actually bad for your health.  Instead of a ‘me first’ approach to life being beneficial, scientists are finding that selfishness is actually harmful not only to society as a whole, but also to the individual being selfish.  Inversely, doing nice things for others and putting others’ needs first actually is not only good for society but also for the do-gooder.

Altruism in Animals

There is a lot of evidence that altruism exists in nature and is beneficial to the group and to the individual.  There are many examples in the animal kingdom.  For example, recently, a group of sperm whales about a thousand miles off the coast of Portugal took in an adult bottlenose dolphin into its herd.  While cross-species interactions are not uncommon among terrestrial animals, sperm whales are not known for forming nurturing bonds with other species.  In fact, such an alliance had never been witnessed before.

For eight days, the dolphin traveled, foraged, and played with the adult whales and their calves. When the dolphin rubbed its body against the whales, the whales would sometimes return the gesture. What is interesting is that the dolphin had an S-shaped, spinal deformity.  There was no benefit to the whales of forming this bond with the handicapped dolphin.  It appeared to be an act of empathy.

There are many other examples of selflessness in nature.  A worker bee cannot reproduce, and exists only for the good of the hive and the propagation of the queen bee’s genes. A vampire bat will spontaneously share food through regurgitation.  These acts help others in the group first which in turn helps the individual.

The Benefits of Selflessness in People

But does this apply to people too?  The simple answer is definitely.  Scientists have discovered over and over again that there are both mental and physical health benefits to the person being selfless.   For example, one study by Shmokin et al. in Israel from 1989 to 1997 looked at 1343 individuals age 75 and up.  The study found a 33 percent reduction rate in mortality for people who do volunteer work compared to those who did no volunteer work, after adjusting for prior health, health behaviors, and social support.

Most recently, a new study of the genetic effects of happiness found that humans are rewarded with healthy gene activity when we are unselfish and we are punished – at a basic microscopic cellular level – when we put our own needs first.  To reach this conclusion, researchers from the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles, had 80 healthy volunteers complete an online questionnaire that asked why they felt satisfied with their lives. Then the researchers drew their blood and analyzed their white blood cells to see their ‘gene expression’… a complex process by which genes direct the production of proteins that control immune response.  People whose happiness was based on a sense of higher purpose and service to others had gene markers indicating low levels of inflammation, which has been linked to the development of cancer and heart disease.  By the same token, people whose happiness was based on material things and servicing their own needs first had gene markers indicating poorer immune response and greater vulnerability to infection.   They appeared to be at increased risk of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Many other studies confirm these same conclusions.  Some may wonder why.  Apparently, selflessness or altruism promotes deeper positive social integration, distraction from self-preoccupation, enhanced meaning and purpose, a more active lifestyle, and the presence of positive emotions such as kindness that displace harmful negative emotional states. So, anyone wanting to ‘look out for number one’ may very well want to start by putting other people’s needs first.  Volunteering, random acts of kindness, selflessness and generosity of both time and spirit actually pay huge dividends not just to others, but also to oneself.  The moral of the story:  it pays to think of others first.

Quote of the Week

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to doing something that has purpose and meaning.” Mitch Album

© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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