I refuse to buy into the belief that there are more takers in the world than givers.
The media is filled with stories about the greedy, the callous and the downright meanness of some people today. Greed’s gotten so bad that we’re now applying scientific study (a good thing) to understand it better. While we recoiled when Gordon Gekko proclaimed “Greed is Good.” in 1987, we accept the “reality” of inequality with alarming resignation today.
Despite an endless stream of articles extolling the virtues and value of collaboration in the workplace, surveys show that 70% of respondents preferred to deal with others – indirectly – using technology and not in-person contact to communicate. While there’s nothing wrong with expedient communication in the workplace, there is no substitute for human “warmth.” It’s estimated that one in seven employees are bullied in the workplace. Rather than recognizing these statistics as a warning statement about our cultural debilitation – we consult the how-to section for help.
We’re busy. Some of us are Very Busy. We’re crazy busy and our actions are shaping how we work and how we connect with other human beings.
We’re distracted. The average time adults spend in front of digital screens is 8 hours. Most people still believe that multi-tasking works (or they are so habituated that it becomes difficult to stop) despite studies that show that the brain cannot fully focus on one task while doing the other. The word multi-task has now made its way into the common lexicon. Because the brain processes different types of information from different channels, the switching required to multi-task is simply inefficient.
We’re stressed – much of the time. Giving requires engendering kindness, empathy and compassion. These, emotions, rather than rules of etiquette, obligation and civility are the fertile ground from which genuine giving flows. Research into the “altruistic” emotions, particularly compassion is showing that the safer we feel, the more we enable our biological system to promote compassion. According to researcher Emiliana Simon-Thomas, “In the face of another person’s suffering, the biological mechanisms that drive our nurturing and care giving can only come online when our more habitual “self-preservation” and “vigilance-to-threat” systems (e.g. fear, distress, anxiety and hostility are not monopolizing the spotlight.”
In other words, enabling compassion (kindness, caring, consideration, empathy, gratitude) requires turning off our defenses..
Even if we’re only motivated by the great news that giving is good for us, there’s ample reason to routinely practice kindness. The evidence is mounting – acts of giving make us happier and healthier. In her Time magazine article, Maia Szalavitz reports on a study published in Psychological Science that shows how social support translates into health benefits like lower blood pressure and healthier hearts.
Implicated in these pro-social acts is our vagus nerve, which connects social contact to the positive emotions that can flow from these interactions. Szalavitz says that “The vagus regulates how efficiently heart rate changes with breathing, and in general, the greater its tone, the higher the heart-rate variability and the lower the risk for cardiovascular disease and other major killers. It may also play a role in regulating glucose levels and immune responses.”
Acts of kindness are also correlated with higher levels of the “touch” hormone oxytocin, which release nitric oxide causing dilation of the blood vessels. On a biochemical level, the so-called “helpers high” is thought to be due to increased levels of dopamine in the brain.
Paying Forward is Real
Significant attention has been paid to the phenomenon of emotional contagion, but social contagion is even more impactful. There are many examples of simple random acts of kindness like the coffee shop contributors to the amazing kidney donation chain. The remarkable story of Kidney Chain 124 started when Rick Ruzzamenti decided to donate his kidney after being motivated by a friend who had done the same. These life-saving chains, for people in dire need of the organ that cannot be matched by a relative, enabled 60 operations that would have taken years, if possible.
This longest living kidney donor chain originating with Loyola Medical Center in Illinois, was made possible by massive coordination by the National Kidney Registry and many good Samaritans whose desire to pay it forward resulted in the saving of many lives. A transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a hospital which was not involved in the chain, commented that the chain was a “momentous feat”.
We’re learning that pay-it-forward behavior is more the norm than the exception. Not surprisingly, we’re more likely to help others when we know them, but many pay-it-forward experiences demonstrate that our sense of belonging and willingness to contribute can go beyond those we know. Yale researcher, David Rand, an expert in human cooperation refers to “reputation motivators” which are conscious and subconscious mechanisms that encourage us to cooperate with others.
But with any pay-it-forward chain or acts of social contagion, they must begin with someone. While it’s wonderful to jump on the giving bandwagon, whether we’re consciously or subconsciously influenced, acting alone (and often without any evidence of support or reinforcement) is where most of us must begin.
It’s our desire to do good, act kindly and extend help that motivates our actions, however grand or tiny they are.
Releasing Your Inner Giver
Because so much of our culture is materially based, we often think of giving in terms of charity and monetary donations. This form of giving can sometimes feel easier. While giving money is a very good thing, an act I heartily endorse, there are many other ways of giving. Giving of one’s self, can sometimes be more challenging, because this can require us to move outside of our comfort zone. We “risk” putting ourselves out there emotionally which can feel vulnerable. Often this can be more inhibiting than the stress, distractions and busyness that keep us isolated.
Whether at work, home, school, on the coffee line or online with your social community, consider the following:
May I be peaceful.
May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I be safe.
May I be free from suffering.
May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free from suffering.
University of North Carolina psychology professor Barbara Frederickson used this mantra in a study measuring the relationship between physical reaction and generation of positive emotions. Asked to sit and think compassionately about others for a period over 61 days, those who experienced the greatest sense of happiness and consequently physiological benefits, were those who reported feeling a deeper sense of social connectedness. In other words, meditation alone did not produce as positive a result as those who reflected on the larger picture of their humanity.
But most important – bypass the “system.” The system says “don’t be a sucker,” “don’t be taken advantage of,” “most people are selfish and unappreciative,” “don’t give more than you get,” “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” All of these memes operate in ways that keep us compartmentalized and artificially separated. They reinforce our sense of isolation and fear. They wreak havoc with our social well-being, and if things don’t change on a global scale, with our survival.
The arc of well-being bends towards giving. With every act we reinforce our goodness and encourage the goodness in others. We remind ourselves and others why we are here.
The opportunities are endless.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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