Benefits of Benevolence

It’s a message fitting for the season and one that gives a whole new meaning to the adage, to give is to receive. Acts of generosity, research shows, don’t just lead to emotional satisfaction; they actually promote physical health and healing. It’s more than good karma of course.

There’s evolutionary rationale to the warm fuzzies we get when we exercise our altruistic muscle. It behooved our ancestors to get along well and exhibit cooperation within their tribal groups. Even as the scale of social community expanded over time, a confluence of cultural motivation and genetic incentive appear to have still favored “pro-social” behaviors. We’re designed to be socially conscious and collaborative creatures. Not surprisingly, physiological incentives to support this orientation have been selected for over time.

As a recent New York Times article highlighted, volunteering and other generous acts won’t cure a disease, but they can help people with serious conditions cope with physical pain and ease their symptoms. Other research associates volunteering with “noteworthy decreases in levels of blood pressure, stomach acid and cholesterol counts” as well as higher levels  of immunity-boosting immunoglobin A. Studies have even linked volunteerism with a lower risk of mortality in the elderly – even after adjusting for “health habits, physical functioning, religious attendance, and social support.” Researchers have long observed the emotional advantages conferred by a generous disposition. The so-called “helper’s high” is rooted in the release of endorphins. In keeping with this effect, those who volunteer report fewer stress symptoms and lower rates of insomnia.

Amazingly, even witnessing acts of charity have been shown to influence immune response – a phenomenon labeled the “Mother Teresa effect.” Study participants who watched scenes of Mother Teresa helping others showed an increase in salivary immunoglobulin A, the front line of immune defense. (Gives a whole new meaning to the concept of “feel-good” programming.) The practice of generosity appears to benefit the giver, recipient and the surrounding social community. Not a bad thought for the holiday season – that we’re drawn to peace, love and cooperation? The idea maybe explains why they broadcast A Christmas Carol no less than three hundred and twelve times between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Of course, we don’t recommend simply living vicariously through the exhibitions of T.V or the transformations of crusty Victorian misers. Nonetheless, perhaps those reruns of holiday classics aren’t such a guilty pleasure after all.

Finally, it should be said during this season of commercial overload that giving shouldn’t be about obligation or necessarily about material exchange. Sulky obligation doesn’t exactly inspire health and happiness in the giver – or gratitude and well-being of the recipient. It’s the grating irony of the holidays these days that the hoopla too often drains the spirit instead of feeds it. We certainly don’t want to give the impression that anyone should drop what they’re doing and run to the next advertised 24-hour super sale or community soup kitchen to don an apron, but if it’s what you feel personally and joyfully called to do, then a big thumbs up! Although studies in altruism have focused on volunteerism, generous acts can also be as small and personal as making your partner’s favorite meal, holding the door for a stranger or offering encouraging words to someone going through difficult times.

The idea here, we sense, is less about any particular action than it is about mindset. When it comes to benevolence benefit, it’s truly the thought that counts. Adopting a magnanimous attitude can lift us out of the limited and ultimately lonely individualism that can feel like and truly be a burden. As one study cited by the NYT explains, common “themes” in volunteers’ feedback include the satisfaction of “’making a connection’” and living with “’a sense of purpose.’” Fostering genuine health involves more than pampering ourselves or marking off suggested acts for personal well-being. Giving of ourselves places our potential for happiness outside of the restricted confines of our own lives. It extends our potential for fulfillment and joy beyond the daily details of our lives to the good we can see and do in all that’s around us.

Have you felt the “helper’s high”? What role do you think generosity plays in personal wellness? Let us know your thoughts.

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27 thoughts on “Benefits of Benevolence”

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  1. Interesting post, Mark.

    As food for thought, it might be instructive for readers to consider how today’s notions of benevolence & altruism differ from the sort of social human animal that existed in the paleolithic.

    I’m given to pointing out that it’s interesting when one looks at the anthropology that hunter-gatherers seem to limit themselves to 30ish members and when it gets too much more than that, they seem to slit off. A far cry from today’s collectives of hundreds of millions and billions of people going to voting booths to have a 1/300 millionth say (or less) in their own affairs.

    Could it be that our evolved social structure of 30ish members is because each individual is of critical importance to the group, is valued as such and in times of disagreement — and this might be the most important possibility — has a real & tangible chance of influencing all the others.

    Contrast that with the head beating against walls political junkies do today in a futile attempt to influence national policy…

    Perhaps we evolved to account for, at best, the values and differing ideas of about 30 people.

  2. I live in Sioux Falls, a “small” city of 150,000 or so. When I see people on social media channels that are nearby, I’ll reach out and have coffee with them and strike up a connection. In the past 6 months I had coffee with two such people on separate occasions. Thinking they would enjoy each other’s perspectives, I suggested they meet. Jump ahead 6 months and I noticed one of thse friends is doing a webinar on a nationally known site – because I helped connect her to my other new friend. I don’t expect an extra Christmas card or anything in the mail, but it brings a smile to me that I set in motion a relationship that has helped them both and may help one earn some extra income.
    As Keith Ferrazzi suggests in his book, Never Eat Alone, it’s good to network – and then use your connections to help others. Giving to others doesn’t have to be just money; it can be your connections of all things! Introducing friends to other friends makes…more friends overall. And as the adage goes, if you help enough people get what they want, it will ultimately assist you in getting what you want.
    Happy Holidays!

  3. “I’ll watch your back if you watch mine”

    Reciprocal altruism has been key for our survival and is the foundation of human morality. We evolved to be kind to our neighbor, so mankind has had an acute sense of morality since we became social animals.

    We do not need to embrace superstition or to fear being punished by an imaginary being in order to be “good”. Actually, I would say that part of the human species has managed to remain good *in spite* of superstition and myth.

    The primal lifestyle is, to me, a lot about discovering and embracing our true animal nature with no guilt and through an honest and critical pursuit of the truth.

  4. I vaguely recall that one of the skeletons of Homo floresiensis (aka the Hobbits) found in Indonesia was of an elderly man who was estimated to have lost his teeth about 2 years before he died. Practically speaking, there would have been no way for him to live that long after losing his teeth unless his younger compatriots were taking care of him.

    Serial Sinner, I absolutely agree that it is fundamental to embrace the animal nature of humanity. I think much cultural, spiritual, and social damage stems from the idea that humans are of a special, separate, and higher order than the rest of the living community. Technically speaking, most animals have a social group of some sort or another – flocks, prides, packs, schools, etc. – but humans in particular rely on social organizations as a way of retaining and passing on knowledge of tool-making, food collection, the creation of clothing and shelter and the like.

  5. I’m gonna play the role of scrooge here. I’m not saying I completely agree with this role, but it’s an idea. I’m gonna post a quote, it’s from a video game(the only thing keeping me from living in trees, hunting and foraging for my own food) But that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid point. From Star Wars: KOTOR II,
    Someone asks for money, if you oblige your master says:

    “If you seek to aid everyone that suffers in the galaxy, you will only weaken yourself… and weaken them. It is the internal struggles, when fought and won on their own, that yield the strongest rewards. You stole that struggle from them, cheapened it. If you care for others, then dispense with pity and sacrifice and recognize the value in letting them fight their own battles. And when they triumph, they will be even stronger for the victory.”


    1. Trevor…
      So, you’ve never needed help? And if you did, you’d refuse it so that you could keep your “inner struggle”?
      So next time your car dies, it’s freezing and you’re miles from civilization and that car passes you, he’s just letting you keep your inner struggle.
      No man is an island. We’re here for each other on a lot of levels. You read this website, right? Maybe you can stop reading it and figure it all out for yourself. We wouldn’t want to take that inner struggle from you, after all.
      I’m not trying to be smarmy or anything like that, I’m just illustrating that we all need each other. We really do.

      1. Indeed. While we all need to struggle to grow, too much burden crushes us. The line that seperates them is different for everybody, and attempting to apply some blanket philosophy (suck it up princess and take care of yourself, in this case) is doomed to fail in the real world.

        I would point out that these sorts of philosophies seem to be most popular with those that have never had to truly struggle for survival; real survival comes from your team/tribe working together, not from some individualistic man vs the world baloney that only actually happens in the movies.

    2. I think you need to pick and choose when you help someone. It’s like you need to pick your fights.

      I remember when I was really low on money, I couldn’t afford food. It was very humbling to go to the food bank. So even though I was helped during that time, I am still stronger. I appreciate money and not having it.

      Of course you can’t help everyone in the world, but should you never help anyone? No. Money is not the only way to help someone and people need to know when and when not to help someone, because I agree that people go through challenges to make them stronger.

    3. Hi Trevor,

      I think Ayn Rand addressed something similar in Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t manage to get through the entire book, but that’s the impression I walked away with.

      Anyway, I think there’s some truth in your quote, and I don’t really see any conflict with today’s blog entry. As far as I can see, it’s a matter of balance. We can still be benevolent people without being (or becoming) codependent enablers. There has to be some boundaries, of course, but we could all probably stand to be a little kinder to each other.

    4. There is a difference between becoming a martyr for humanity and engaging in win-win situations with others.

      We are all inherently selfish. We all pursuit happiness the best way we can under our current knowledge. If someone voluntarily gives, he is expecting to get something (material or non-material) in exchange.

      Selfishness does not exclude altruism. On the contrary, selfishness minimizes nonreciprocal altruism and maximizes reciprocal altruism. It is the latter what makes sense, not the former.

  6. Richard makes a good point when talking about the 30ish person group.

    If we concentrated our benevolence on the 30 people around us then suddenly it’s a doable thing.

    We’re not trying to save the world. We’re helping the world around us.

  7. I think we all feel better when we can contribute to others in some way or another. Whether its as simple as giving a genuine compliment or going out of our comfort zone to help someone else. David Dunn’s classic book “Try Giving Yourself Away” gives a good outline on benevolence or kindness and how to integrate it into your life.

  8. And sometimes people ask for help, but don’t really want it. When I get asked about how I eat by someone interested in becoming more physically fit, once I get to the “no grains” part, it’s all over. I get the “well I can’t do THAT, whole grains are good for you”! and even “But you need your STARCHES”! I used to get frustrated that I couldn’t convince them that grains got them tubby, heart diseased and diabetic in the first place. I’ve learned though that you can’t save people from themselves.

  9. Mark, you’ve made a strong case that benevolence is useful. You’ve etched out a sort of genealogy of benevolence. But to what avail?

    How do we know, as Serialsinner asserts, that “survival… is the foundation of human morality”? Survival as a highest end is obviously false as people often risk their lives to achieve more power.

    So should the will to power then be our end? It is certainly primal. Benevolence certainly provides those “evolutionary fuzzies” of empowerment. What else did our primal ancestors do- hurt other people, suppress women, steal? It appears the problem of the primal blueprint is to live primally while resisting the urge, at least some of the time, to assert power.

    1. @Wyatt: I think you’re confusing survival of the individual with survival of his genetic line; There is an argument to be made that the chicken is just the egg’s way of making more eggs. There is a powerful drive to ensure your genetics carry on in the best position possible, and with most species that involves demonstrating your ability to be in a position of power, even if that means you have to be constantly battling off young bucks ready to unseat you. You could lay low and live a long, unchallenged life, but what lady would want that?

      So there is a vein of individual will to power there, but that doesn’t mean he can survive alone, at least not as a human being. The simple fact remains that a life where you are 100% responsible for all of your wants and needs is a hard, short life.

  10. I have to admit I’ve never been naturally giving when it comes to myself rather than money. The truth is I’m incredibly selfish with my time and my know-how. It’s something I’ve grown to recognise in myself recently and am not at all proud of. Which is why I’ve decided that this month I’m going to refuse payment for one gym session for all of my nutrition clients. I’ve never deliberately cost myself money in the past (although I do always offer the first session free, but once I’ve ‘got’ the client that’s usually it), so it will be a challenging experience for me.

    Thanks for the reminder Mark.

  11. I find it particularly calming to help others in small ways in the immediate hours after I’ve been – well – crapped on by someone else. Little things, like offering to push the grocery cart to the carrel for someone who just finished loading their last bag into the trunk, opening doors, smiling a hello to a passer-by. Costs me nothing. Might get me a smile and eye contact from a human being.

    Just in the last few weeks, I was asked to take over teaching a computer class at my local community college – regrettably, an instructor died unexpectedly. I’m getting something close to dirt for pay, of course, but being able to help the students (who have varying levels of grief over the death) successfully finish their semester’s work is immensely satisfying. It would have been easy to say I was too busy, sorry, No, but I’ve been able to make it work.

  12. I think benevolence is an extremely important part of well-being. And it can range from being patient with a store clerk who is learning the ropes to giving serious time to a non-profit. I do believe it is all part of our perception of the world around us, which affects our sense of contentment–do we see others as extensions of ourselves and our family and treat them with compassion, or as problems to be avoided? A favorite quote from JFK that I have posted on my office door: “Anyone can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

  13. The only situation I ever find myself thinking of that quote is when I encounter that bum on the street holding his hand out for money, like it’s expected.

    I think he’s already given up. He’s become a black hole to the benevolence of others. Of course I don’t know his life, or what he’s planning on doing.

    Let’s say EVERYONE refuses him their charity, what know? I think the instinct of self-preservation will kick in and he’ll work for his food, then eventually work his way back towards sovereignty.

    I’ll pull someone out of a burning car. I’ll hold the door open for handicapped individuals. I will NOT setup a ladder at the edge of a pit for someone who has no intention of climbing out.

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  15. Oh, such a great post. Giving is so much more fulfilling than receiving. It’s important in life to do good for others, as well as occasionally treat our own selves. The gift of giving speaks for itself.

  16. I never truly, truly believed the power of helping someone else until me and my OH went to help out at a homeless shelter over the holiday period a few years ago. We helped set up a photographic studio with a couple of photographers and then offered free photos, stamps, letters and envelopes for the clients to send a photo home, or use the photos for id cards etc. Since the place was vast and offered grooming and health services, by the time the clients came ot us, they were looking fresh and clean and feeling much better about themselves. We met people from all walks of life with so many stories to tell and it really made me think about how easy it is to walk past people in the street and treat them as if they were different from ourselves. I was made redundant just after Sept 11 2001 and finding a new job was really hard. That could have been me making use of that service, had things not worked out differently.

    We did very little in the grand scheme of things over those few days, but the gratitude and the friendship we received and the connections we made was something I will always remember.

  17. Reading through the comments, I wonder how many here have given much thought to what benevolence, selfishness and altruism actually *mean*.

    Altruism is literally living for the sake of others with *no* concern for one’s self.

    Forget being thoughtful and kind because you feel better about yourself.

    Forget justifying sacrifice for others because it you’ll be better off for it. That’s not altruism.

    Let me ask you: what if it your ‘altruism’ was a one-way street?

    What if your thoughtfulness, kindness and sacrifice were not rewarded at all and were perhaps even punished?

    Can anyone here honestly claim they would continue singing the virtues of ‘altruism’?

    The fact is, *if* we value our own (long term, true) well being, we are, by definition concerned with ourselves, and that, like it or not, is selfishness.

    Consider that (voluntary) benevolence may be the most profoundly selfish act in that, as Mark has noted, it may contribute greatly to our *own* well being.

    Someone commented “it is better to give than to receive”. If that is true, what does that say about those that receive our gifts?

    Would you prefer to receive a gift from someone who believes they are sacrificing (better to give than to receive)?

    Or would you rather receive a gift from someone that values you so much as part of their own happiness that giving to you is not a sacrifice?

    Me? I prefer to think of benevolence not as giving but as investing… and I do expect a (not necessarily material) positive return on my investment!

  18. Hey Richard Nikoley,
    From what I have read, the number of people after which membership in society goes from “having a say” to “banging your head against a wall” is around 150.

    Courtesy Wikipedia:
    Dunbar’s number is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number, but a commonly cited approximation is 150.

    Dunbar’s number was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who theorized that “this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” On the periphery, the number also includes past colleagues such as high school friends with whom a person would want to reacquaint themselves if they met again.

    Check out Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” for other interesting stuff about society and social interaction!