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Giving Can Be Good For You - Science Says So Print E-mail

Written by Rusty Wright

"All You Need is Love"

Do you want happiness and fulfillment in life? Then practice giving, advises an influential medical professor.

"It really is good to be good," claims Stephen Post, PhD., professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. "Science says it is so."{1}

Post and coauthor Jill Neimark present evidence in their book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People. The institute Post heads has funded "over fifty studies [related to giving] at forty-four major universities."{2} He's convinced that giving is essential for optimum physical and mental health in a fragmented society.

Post says research has produced remarkable findings: "Giving protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease." If pharmaceutical companies could charge for giving, we might see ads for "Give Back" instead of "Prozac," he speculates. One program, "Rx: Volunteer," has some California HMO physicians giving volunteerism "prescriptions" to their Medicare patients.{3}

Post and Neimark say around five hundred scientific studies demonstrate that unselfish love can enhance health. For instance, Paul Wink, a Wellesley College psychologist, studied data that followed about two hundred people every decade since the 1920s. Giving during high school correlated with good mental and physical health across life spans.{4}

Other research says that giving correlates with lower teen depression and suicide risk and with lower depression among the elderly. Studies at Stanford and elsewhere found links between frequent volunteering and delaying death. Post says giving even trumps receiving when it comes to reducing mortality.{5}

Give more; enjoy life and live longer? Maybe, as Jesus famously said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35 NASB). Both Jewish and Christian biblical texts admonish us to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18; Mt. 22:39 NIV). I don't know about you, but I find it fascinating to explore these ways that contemporary science and social science often highlight the value of ancient biblical principles.

Post presents research to support the value of ten ways of expressing giving love. Here we will examine four of them: compassion, humor, loyalty, and listening.

"Love cures," wrote the esteemed psychiatrist Karl Menninger. It cures "both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it."{6}

Compassion's Benefits

Illustrations abound of giving's personal benefits.

Millard Fuller, a millionaire, gave away much of his wealth at age thirty. He and his wife, Linda, sold their business and affiliated with Koinonia Farm, a Georgia Christian community. They built houses in Zaire and then founded Habitat for Humanity in 1976 to help needy people build affordable homes. Fuller's goal was "to eliminate poverty housing from the face of the earth. Get rid of shacks!"{7}

Today, Habitat volunteers have constructed over two hundred twenty-five thousand houses, helping over a million people in over three thousand communities worldwide.{8} Countless volunteers attest to the personal satisfaction their involvement brings. And they're in over ninety countries. In Amman, Jordan, for example, I had lunch with the Habitat director there who involves compassionate volunteers in the Middle East.

As I reflect on his work, I'm reminded of another Middle Eastern leader who showed great compassion. One of His followers wrote, "When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36 NIV).

Stephen Post says "we're hardwired to open our hearts and to care—and in fact, compassion is important for the survival of the species."{9} He cites preliminary psychological research in which "compassion significantly reduced depression and stress."{10}

In that light, consider the intriguing tale of a former Playboy model who has devoted her life to helping poor kids in Haiti. Susan Scott Krabacher's childhood helped her connect with the hurting children she now serves. Sexual abuse, her mother's psychiatric breakdown, multiple foster homes, and her brother's suicide took their emotional toll. In her late teens, she became a Playboy centerfold and moved into the Playboy mansion.

Ten years of playing mixed with depression. Eventually she reconnected with the Christian faith of her youth. Observing Haiti's poverty prompted her to learn more of the biblical take on life. The foundation she and her husband started runs three orphanages for twenty-three hundred children. "I work long hours," Krabacher notes, "put up with unbelievable sacrifice, bury too many children, and get no compensation but love, which is the greatest freedom you can know and the most important thing in the world."{11}

Humor – Good Medicine

There are intriguing parallels between some modern social scientific findings and time-tested biblical life-lessons. One of these involves humor. An ancient proverb says, "A joyful heart is good medicine" (Prov. 17:22 NASB).

Humor heals. Think about how you felt the last time you roared with laughter. Maybe a funny movie, a family situation, or an uproarious joke session had you even crying and gasping for air. Your abdominal muscles and heartbeat went wild. One Stanford psychiatrist "found that a hundred laughs is the aerobic equivalent of ten minutes of rowing."{12}

Stephen Post sees humor as a way to help others, "a very effective way of connecting, of lightening another's life as well as our own." Interviews with Holocaust survivors conducted by a Tel Aviv University researcher found that many cited humor "as a way of surviving trauma." Post notes that Ronald Reagan was a master of using humor to put other people [and perhaps himself] at ease. When President Reagan was shot and at risk of dying, he quipped to the emergency room doctors, "I hope you're all Republicans."{13}

Of course, bitter humor can hurt rather than heal. But positive humor can help people relate and communicate openness. Post cites psychologist Robert Provine who monitored and analyzed over twelve hundred "bouts" of laughter in public places. Provine says shared, contagious laughter can be "an important signal you send to someone that says, ‘This is play. I'm not going to attack or hurt you.'"{14}

Humor is also important for a successful marriage, according to University of Washington psychologist John Gottman. He found that coping with issues "through dialogue, laughter, and affection" was a good predictor of whether marriages would last.{15}

On a Detroit TV talk show, the host and I were discussing my book, Secrets of Successful Humor. He asked about humor and marriage. I told him, "The secret of our marriage is that we take time two evenings each week to go out to a lovely restaurant. A nice dinner, some candlelight, soft music, a slow walk home. She goes Tuesdays; I go Fridays."

It hit a nerve. The host roared, long and loud. Contagious laughter spread throughout the studio audience. We all enjoyed some communal fun that helped open us up to each other.

Loyalty Bonds

A famous biblical proverb notes, "A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need" (Prov. 17:17 NLT). Post believes that "Loyalty is love that lasts. . . . The commitment inherent in loyalty defuses our deepest existential anxiety." He continues: "Broken covenants are hard to restore and never quite attain their state of original trust. It's not easy to find loyalty in our society."{16}

Marriage and friendship, of course, can be significant expressions of loyalty. University of Chicago demographer Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher co-authored the book The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. Analyzing data from over six thousand families, Waite discovered strong correlations between marriage and longevity. Gallagher says their research demonstrated that, compared to similar singles, married folks "are physically healthier, live longer . . . experience less anxiety, depression, hostility, and loneliness, and are more likely to tell you that they're happy with life in general. They have more sex than single people of the same age." Of course there's a caveat, Post notes. High-conflict marriages bring stress and can lower immune function.{17}

Friendships count, too. University of North Carolina sociologist Rebecca Adams' frequent childhood moves had her attending thirteen schools by the time she entered college. She feels she learned how to make new friends but wasn't as good at maintaining them. These experiences helped motivate her to study friendship. She's discovered strong links between quality of relationships and mental well-being. Adams notes, "It's been shown over and over again that friendship is more important to psychological well-being than family relations are. . . . Friendships are voluntary. So we'll choose friendships that support our psychological well-being."{18}

Men can learn a lot from women about friendship. Male and female friendship styles often differ, Adams says: "Men define their friendships in terms of shared activities, and women define them in terms of conversation. For men, a friend is their fishing, golfing, or bowling buddy. For women, a friend is someone they can confide in." Of course there are exceptions, but Post notes that emotional intimacy is what nourishes friendships most.{19}

Giving love through compassion, humor, and loyalty all contribute to our well-being. But, is anybody listening?

"I'm Listening"

The television comedy Frasier was one of the most popular TV series in U.S. history. It's been called "a thinking person's comedy." Reruns are ubiquitous, about six episodes daily in our area. Frasier Crane, the protagonist, is a caring, sensitive, cultured—but insecure and sometimes pompous—Seattle radio psychiatrist who always greets his callers with, "I'm listening." Yet sometimes he becomes so wrapped up in himself that he tunes others out. He's not alone. In one amusing scene, Frasier's ex wife, Lilith (also a psychiatrist), tries to converse with Frasier's brother, Niles (yet another psychiatrist), about an especially weighty matter. Niles, focused on a video game, doesn't pay her sufficient attention, prompting Lilith to exclaim, "Is there a chair here I could talk to?"

I confess that in our home, my wife Meg sometimes has to use Lilith's line to get my attention. (Mind you, I don't confess that it's as often as she might claim!) But listening is a powerful form of affirmation and an important tool in understanding and communication. Solomon, a wise Jewish king, wrote, "What a shame, what folly, to give advice before listening to the facts!" (Proverbs 18:13 NLT)

Stephen Post writes, "When we truly absorb another's story, we are saying, ‘You count. Your life and feelings and thoughts matter to me. And I want to know who you really are.'" He claims that listening can help both the listener and the one listened to. New studies indicate: "Listening activates the part of our brains hardwired for empathy. . . . When we listen to others in pain, their stress response quiets down and their body has a better chance to heal."{20}

Post says that without a good listener, we can feel terribly alone, "like the psalmist in the Bible who cries out, ‘No man cared for my soul.'" He continues, "This has led some scholars to call the God of the Psalms a God of listening. Our need for a listener is an inherent aspect of all prayer."{21}

So, giving love is good for you. Science says so. Compassion, humor, loyalty, and listening are important ways you can express giving love. Is it as intriguing to you as it is to me that contemporary science and social science are often in harmony with age-old biblical counsel? Makes me think I should read the Bible more often.

Notes

1. Stephen Post, PhD, and Jill Neimark, Why Good Things Happen to Good People (New York: Broadway Books, 2007), 15.
2. Ibid., 1.
3. Ibid., 7.
4. Ibid, 7-8, 48-51.
5. Ibid., 8-10, 68-69.
6. Ibid., 2.
7. Ibid., 25, 275.
8. www.habitat.org
9. Post and Neimark, Why Good Things Happen, 179-180.
10. Ibid., 184.
11. Ibid., 177-8; see also Susan Krabacher (as told to Kristi Watts), "Diary of a Playboy Centerfold," The 700 Club, www.cbn.com/700club/features/amazing/Susan_Krabacher061506.aspx; accessed January 24, 2008.
12. Post and Neimark, Why Good Things Happen, 132.
13. Ibid., 133-135.
14. Ibid., 139-140.
15. Ibid., 141-142.
16. Ibid., 199-200.
17. Ibid., 203-205.
18. Ibid., 216-217.
19. Ibid., 221.
20. Ibid., 231-232.
21. Ibid., 234.

© 2008 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Rusty Wright, former associate speaker and writer with Probe Ministries, is an international lecturer, award-winning author, and journalist who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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