The Goodness of Giving

Selflessness doesn’t just benefit recipients, but those on the giving side of the
equation, too. The bonus: There are so many ways to give, whether you are being
charitable with your money, time or love. Here’s what science says about
altruism and how it enhances all our lives.

By Allan Richter

November 2008

After the last bit of crumpled gift wrap is discarded this holiday season, the loved ones you’ve bought gifts for will very likely remember your kindness. But that warm feel-good emotion behind your generosity isn’t just a boon to the people on the receiving end—it turns out altruism is good for the giver, too.

Consider Eleanor Nwadinobi, MD, who gave up a lucrative medical practice in England and moved to Nigeria to teach poor rural women how to gather,
prepare and store nutritious foods. “That feeling of touching lives is exhilarating,” Nwadinobi says, punctuating her conversation with giggles in a telephone interview from Venice, Italy, where she was attending an anti-poverty conference. “It’s rejuvenating. There’s just that spring in your step.”

Paul Newman: A Life Well Lived

“I wanted to acknowledge luck,” Paul Newman once said of his charitable work—“the chance and benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others, who might not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.”

When Newman died in September at age 83, he left more than a half-century of film work, much of it in memorable movies like “Hud” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” But his legacy is at least as notable for the philanthropy that also survives him—he once joked that his salad dressing was outgrossing his films.

The actor’s 25-year-old Newman’s Own food company, which features all-
natural and organic products, has racked up more than $250 million in sales. In 1988, six years after launching Newman’s Own, he started his Hole in the Wall camps for terminally ill children.

Newman made arrangements to have his charities continue their work after his death. In addition, his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, and daughters are involved with his foundation.

Nutrition and health were themes of Newman’s philanthropy that stretched across the US and overseas. Among the charities and causes that received Newman’s Own proceeds are Safe Water Network, which Newman helped launch to provide safe drinking water to deprived communities in places like India and Africa.

Closer to home, Newman’s Own has partnered with Ford to put trucks on the road to deliver otherwise cost-prohibitive fruits, vegetables and other fresh and nutritious food to low-income families.

Newman’s reputation was one of a low-key and dignified actor with greater pursuits than filling movie theaters. He lived in Westport, Connecticut, far from the film industry’s Hollywood epicenter. But giving, as the motto of Newman’s Own makes clear, was one area in which Newman didn’t shy away from his high profile: “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.”

Research studies have shown that stress and negative emotions can harm health. Hostile and angry people, for instance, have higher mortality rates (Circulation 2000). In contrast, being concerned with another person’s welfare at a cost to yourself—science’s definition of altruism—can show measurable health benefits despite that seeming contradiction, researchers say.

“There’s a lot of good evidence on how hostile and negative emotion states in extended forms are like acid on metal,” says Stephen Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at the School of Medicine, Stony Brook University. “Positive emotions like compassion, empathy, gratitude and a few others seem to be able to push or displace these negative emotions. That partly explains some of the benefits that are associated with doing unto others.”

Another part of the explanation comes from evolutionary biology. Doing good by others in your community is self-preserving, says Lee Alan Dugatkin, PhD, a biology professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and author of The Altruism Equation (Princeton University Press). Since many acts of selflessness are directed at relatives, Dugatkin explains, people and other animals are helping assure that copies of some of their genes will be preserved, at least in survival scenarios. “Natural selection favors altruism,” he says.

“If you see a squirrel giving an alarm call to warn others about a predator, you can almost bank on the fact that that alarm call is being given in the presence of genetic relatives,” Dugatkin says. “Even if you attract attention to yourself and put yourself in danger, if you can help lots of relatives, you’re essentially getting paid back for any cost you pay, even if you pay the ultimate cost.”

Less Self-Focus
Cornell University has studied families and has proposed applying the altruistic behavior inherent among relatives to helping reduce poverty. Cornell recommends providing incentives to help blood relatives live near one another so they can reduce the risk that the child of a single parent, for example, becomes impoverished.

“It’s possible to take this kind of thinking and apply it into more practical terms,” Dugatkin says. “That said, you really want to make sure that the people who are working in the neighborhood are involved in any kind of plan you develop. Human behavior is very complex, and if you’re not careful you can set up a situation where you create rivalries between family clans.”

Besides blood kinship, the other major evolutionary theory behind altruism is the idea that doing good brings some good in return. An investigation of vampire bats, creatures that cannot survive more than 60 hours without consuming blood, found that bats that regurgitated blood to feed others were likely to have been fed by the bats they helped (Nature 1984). People have shown similarreciprocity-rooted altruism, Duga­tkin says, pointing to a tendency for families of kidney recipients to donate organs themselves.

Bono: A Broad Reach

It’s hard to pinpoint Bono’s politics. The U2 frontman has appeared equally at ease with President George W. Bush and alongside former President Bill Clinton. That all-inclusive outreach philosophy may be one reason the singer-turned-activist has been so effective in raising both money and awareness to help relieve debt, hunger and poverty in struggling communities around the world.

Bono’s Red campaign, a partnership with product manufacturers, has raised funding to buy enough antiretroviral medicine to treat 2.5 million people with AIDS in Africa. After Red, Bono launched his One anti-poverty campaign.

Along with fellow Irish rocker Bob Geldof, Bono recently lent support to a plan to earmark for African farmers nearly $1.5 billion that Europe has set aside for its farmer subsidies. The plan would help the African farmers buy fertilizer and seeds.

“These African farmers who are just scratching in the dirt, with no fertilizer, with no seeds to plant are in a chronic state while European farmers, who, of course, have solidarity with African farmers, know that there’s a surplus that’s there for them when the bottom falls out of the European market,” Bono said at a news conference.

At the United Nations this fall, Bono sounded a note of optimism that Africa can reverse its resource shortfalls and become a major food producer. He was trying to spark action on the recently unveiled Irish Hunger Commission Report, which called for addressing infant and maternal nutrition and helping boost productivity for Africa’s agricultural sector.

At Clinton’s fourth annual New York summit on global poverty, the rocker put the fight against poverty in context. “It is extraordinary to me that you can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can’t find $25 billion to save 25,000 children who die every day of preventable treatable disease and hunger,” he told the summit.

“Sometimes the best way in the long run to help yourself is to help others along the way,” Dugatkin says.

Another study that showed that altruism is healthful examined spending on others, sometimes called “pro-social” spending. It showed that workers who gave away more of their profit-sharing income were happier than those who gave less. In the same study, published in Science in March, participants who were asked to spend cash that was given to them also were happier after they spent it on others. People who spent as little as $5 on others registered satisfaction.

Further, researchers have found that recovering alcoholics who help other alcoholics maintain long-term sobriety after treatment can better maintain their own sobriety (Journal of Studies on Alcohol 11/04). The researchers concluded that clinicians who treat people with substance abuse disorders should encourage their clients to help other recovering alcoholics stay sober.

In a follow-up study published in the same journal last year, the research team, led by Maria Pagano, PhD, assistant professor of child, adolescent and adult psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, observed that 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous’ program work around the principle that substance abuse is a symptom of a larger problem rooted in “self-centeredness.”

“One of the antidotes to self- centeredness, and one that is critical to an individual becoming and staying sober, is being of service to others,” the researchers wrote.

A Religious Belief
­­Science isn’t alone in backing the pursuit of altruism. Helping one another is an obligation in all major religions, observes President Bill Clinton in his book Giving (Knopf). Tzedakah, literally meaning righteousness, stands for social justice and giving in Jewish law and tradition. Islam cites zakat, or obligatory giving, and sadaqah, or voluntary giving. Christians embrace the idea of loving one’s neighbor as you would yourself. And Buddhists see donation to others as a step toward enlightenment.

A recent study of Tibetan monks bodes well for the prospect of reversing depression and even the behavior of school bullies, its authors say. The study, published in March in Public Library of Science One, showed that kindness and compassion can be learned much the way playing a musical instrument or proficiency in a sport can.

In the study, researchers working at the University of Wisconsin in Madison used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to gauge emotions among a group of 16 monks who practiced compassionate meditation, a form of reflection in which someone contemplates performing kind

Mia Farrow: Goodwill Ambassador

Food and nutrition are among the central issues actress Mia Farrow has turned the spotlight on in her efforts to bring aid to trouble spots around the globe. Most recently, Farrow has toured Haiti, devastated by four storms that hammered the impoverished country in just one month.

More than 400 people died in the storms, which also destroyed thousands of homes and leveled 60% of the country’s farmland. “Whole cities and villages are devastated, fields and crops lie beneath water. Roads and bridges are washed out. Many areas remain inaccessible to relief workers. We cannot yet know how many have perished,” Farrow wrote on her website after returning from the beleaguered country in September.

Farrow, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, has campaigned extensively against the widespread killings in Sudan’s Darfur region and the deep gashes in its food lifeline. Farrow posts photos of her humanitarian trips—she has visited the Darfur region 10 times—and news reports about the troubled region.

In Darfur, rations and other aid from the World Food Program have been cut or hijacked as attacks on humanitarian convoys mount. By the early fall, more than 100 WFP vehicles had been hijacked this year, with 43 drivers and 69 trucks missing. At the same time, the Sudanese government continues to export food that it can put in the mouths of people displaced in the region. In September, Farrow pointed to a food riot that broke out near a displaced persons camp, sparked by a shortage of sorghum because of the risk in bringing in supplies.

Farrow is the mother of 14 children, 10 of them adopted. Not surprisingly, if Farrow has aspirations that her children follow in her acting career path, they are not apparent. This summer, Farrow’s son Ronan worked in clinics in the Kibera slums outside Nairobi in Kenya. “I’m very proud of him,” she said in a post on her site.

acts for people in need. The monks’ reactions to sounds that were played to elicit emotions were compared to those of 16 people who were taught compassionate meditation just two weeks before the study. During the research, both groups listened to the sounds of a distressed woman and a laughing baby, as well as more neutral sounds like background restaurant noise.

Changes in the Brain
For both the monks and the group of newcomers to compassionate meditation, the scans of reactions to the emotion-filled sounds showed heavy activity in the anterior insula cortex, an area near the front of the brain that the researchers said plays a role in how the body represents emotion.

Activity also increased in the empathy-processing temporal parietal juncture. But the results were more pronounced among the monks—far more experienced at compassionate meditation—than the novices who had recently learned the contemplation practice.

The study showed that cultivating kindness and compassion changes regions of the brain and can make a person more empathetic. “People who meditate to be compassionate have a different brain, so it suggests that one could train oneself to be compassionate,” says Antoine Lutz, PhD, a scientist with the Laboratory of Brain Imaging at the University of Wisconsin.

Giving, of course, doesn’t pack the same punch if it is motivated by self-interest. “I’m not advocating that we think about pro-social and generous behavior as the newest mode of self-help,” says Stony Brook University’s Post. “As a side effect or byproduct of sincere and generous helping, we overall have a happier, healthier and longer life. This is a secondary motivation. It’s okay to know it’s there, but we’re talking first and foremost about a genuine and authentic giving.”

He adds, “Don’t let the law of reciprocity hang over your head. Be kind, let everything take care of itself and hope that people you’re generous to will themselves be inspired.”

Self-Help First
But Post and others say people need to take care of themselves first if they are to successfully give to others. That concept is at work when flight attendants demonstrate oxygen masks before a flight and caution parents to don the masks themselves before putting them on their children. That lesson can be applied particularly to healthcare givers and civil servants. Nurses, doctors, firefighters and others in “giving” professions don’t necessarily lead more healthy lives. In fact, says Post, Alzheimer’s caregivers have been shown to be more depressed than others. Indeed, to reap the health benefits of altruism, giving should not cause compassion fatigue and undue stress.

Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie
Delivering Health

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have made just about as big a name for themselves in philanthropy as they have on the silver screen.

The stars trot the globe to remote locations not just to shoot their movies, but to bring attention to the poverty- and disease-stricken in Africa and other developing areas where good health is elusive.

Often, the solutions are simple and affordable, as Pitt has observed. “Vitamin A costs 2 cents for a dose,” Pitt said in a 2006 interview to promote “Rx for Survival,” a global health documentary he narrated.

Part of a $2 million donation that Pitt and Jolie recently made to help fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in Ethiopia will be used to build a health center in the African country’s capital city of Adis Ababa. The health center is to be named after Pitt and Jolie’s three-year-old daughter Zahara, who was born in Ethiopia, indicating that the power couple are preparing their own growing brood for a life of giving.

“It is our hope when Zahara is older she will take responsibility of the clinic and continue its mission,” Pitt said in a statement when the donation by the Jolie-Pitt Foundation was announced in September.

Pitt, 44, and Jolie, 33, are similarly involving their son Maddox, 7, who was adopted from Cambodia, in their charitable work. The stars helped launch the Maddox Chivan Children’s Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where it has been providing medical treatment and educating people about HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

Another son, four-year-old Pax, was adopted from Vietnam. Pitt and Jolie also are parents of Shiloh, 2, who was born in Namibia, and newborn twins Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline.

Pitt and Jolie have donated millions to help relieve poverty and sickness in developing nations where resources are short. But their high-profile adoptions of children from resource-thin regions of Africa and Asia and the star power they bring to awareness-raising projects have helped put the spotlight on ways others can pitch in.

As Pitt has pointed out, solutions are within reach: Adding vitamin A to a child’s diet can help prevent river blindness, or providing a bed net can help keep mosquito-borne malaria at bay. “It’s heartbreaking to see avoidable illness take away lives,” the actor once said.

“Living a generous and kindly life over the long haul tends to protect people mentally and physically, and even seems to add a little bit of length to life as long as people aren’t overwhelmed and can create a kind of rhythm and balance and aren’t stressed out by doing too much,” says Post, author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Exciting New Science That Proves the Link Between Doing Good and Living a Longer, Happier, Healthier Life (Broadway Books).

The idea of caring first for the caregivers is at the heart of many health and anti-poverty campaigns in the developing world, which health groups say is beset by major deficiencies of vitamins that can go a long way in preventing disease. The nutritional education programs needed in these regions can be fruitless if the people who carry them out are not themselves healthy. That’s why many outreach groups aim their education efforts about essential nutrients at women, a demographic they say can help stave off disease and nourish not only children but entire families.

For Nwadinobi, the doctor who moved to Nigeria to launch a health outreach group, Women’s Rights to Health Information (WORTHI), teaching women in poor rural areas about nutrition makes perfect sense: Without healthy women to prepare and serve nourishing meals to their families, disease could spread much more quickly.

“The father gets the food first, and the largest portion, and then the child and the mother might get the scraps—that’s the interfamilial hierarchy of food distribution,” Nwadinobi says. “But let’s make sure that she stays healthy and that her family stays healthy. The women have to be alive to be the ones to carry the message and action.”

Among the biggest vitamin and mineral deficiencies, says the World Health Organization, is a short supply of vitamin A, which affects the eyes. The WHO also identifies iron deficiencies that can cut resistance to infections and lead to anemia, and iodine deficiencies that can slow mental development.

Nwadinobi’s group teaches women in poor rural areas to identify local foods like legumes that provide similar nutritional content as more costly and unavailable options like meat and fish. It teaches them how to prepare foods without losing their nutritional value—avoiding overcooking, for instance—and how to store food to last. And women learn how to modify agricultural tools that are typically designed for men.

Finding Inspiration
In their book The Power of Giving (Penguin), Azim Jamal and Harvey McKinnon promote the idea of applying tithing to yourself. Tithing is a practice that many religions advocate under which 10% of income is donated to charity. (Studies show that most North Americans actually give between half of 1% and 2% to nonprofits or religious groups each year, the authors say.) Rather than giving material wealth to oneself, however, McKinnon, a Canada-based fund-raising consultant, suggests that people devote 10% of their time to becoming “better, healthier and wiser.” He calls the practice intrapersonal tithing.

Calculating the number of hours people spend on work, sleep and other routine activities, the authors observe that people have approximately 2,000 hours of flexible time during the year, leaving 200 hours annually (or roughly 4 hours a week) to tithe to yourself. To enhance personal growth and the ability to give to others, they recommend a regimen of reading to inspire yourself, learn new skills and help you look at the world in fresh ways. Exercise at least three times a week, they add, and spend more time in nature and in meditation or prayer. Learning to listen to others and spending time with loved ones also can help nourish compassion.

Caring for yourself first may on the surface sound selfish. In reality, though, it is a common-sense necessity for altruism to work. “You can’t give what you don’t have,” Jamal and McKinnon reason. “If you are physically, emotionally and spiritually drained, you have little to give.”

Search our articles: