Give a Little and Get A lot

LA is a difficult place to live. There is the unbearable harried pace, mutual alienation, and distance from the rhythms of nature and of human nature. It can be difficult to find happiness in LA.

In the United States, self-reported happiness has been flat for decades, or has even slightly declined since the late 1930’s, despite each generation having more material wealth than did the preceding one. Anxiety and depression are up, especially among teens. While those whose basic material needs are met are happier than those who struggle in poverty, once basic needs are met, increased material prosperity does not bring increased happiness. This is in part because people tend to assess their level of relative prosperity by making comparisons with those who have more, and thus always perceive themselves as wanting. But it is also because financial capital does not equate with social capital. Americans today, while better off materially than their forbears, now report having only two very close friends, whereas twenty years ago they had three. This loss of “social capital,” which occurs despite material prosperity, has been described with terms such as “bowling alone”.  The United States ranks 23rd among nations in the first-ever “world map of happiness”

Living in a big city is clearly a risk factor for unhappiness. Maybe one solution is to recover community in the big city. Researchers have begun to focus on the benefits to the agent of altruistic or “other-regarding” behavior in the domains of families, neighborhood, and society. If kind emotions and/or helping behavior are associated with well-being and health, we need to express these capacities even though our environment may work hard to inhibit such expression. Harvard’s Pitirim A. Sorokin, in his classic 1954 treatise entitled, The Ways and Power of Love, began his “Preface” with the
assertion that unselfish love and altruism are “necessary for physical, mental, and moral health,” and that “altruistic persons live longer than egoistic individuals.” This connection has been examined in a major longitudinal prospective study of Harvard graduates over a fifty-year period, with the finding that generativity and happiness are very closely associated. 

Well-being consists of feeling hopeful, happy and good about oneself, as well as energetic and connected to others. Clearly “doing unto others,” practicing “love of neighbor,” and in general giving to others in heart and action is contributory to happiness. This is true for all ages. Stephanie Brown (2003), for example, reported on a 5-year study involving 423 older couples. Each couple was asked what type of practical support they provided for friends or relatives, if they could count on help from others when needed, and what type of emotional support they gave each other. A total of 134 people died over the five years. After adjusting for a variety of factors – including age, gender, and physical and emotional health – the researchers found an association between reduced risk of dying and giving help, but no association between receiving help and reduced death risk. Brown, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, concluded that those who provided no instrumental or emotional support to others were more than twice as likely to die in the five years as people who helped spouses, friends, relatives, and neighbors. Despite concerns that the longevity effects might be due to a healthier individual’s
greater ability to provide help, the results remained the same after the researchers controlled for functional health, health satisfaction, health behaviors, age, income, education level, and other possible confounders. The researchers concluded that, “If giving, rather than receiving, promotes longevity, then interventions that are currently designed to help people feel supported may need to be redesigned so that the emphasis is on what people do to help others.”

“Doing unto others” results in deeper and more positive social integration, distraction from personal problems and the anxiety of self-preoccupation, enhanced meaning and purpose as related to well-being, a more active lifestyle that counters cultural pressures toward isolated passivity, and the presence of positive emotions such as kindness that displace harmful negative emotional states. It is entirely quite plausible, then, to assert that altruism enhances happiness and health. The idea that human beings are inclined toward helpful pro-social and altruistic behavior seems incontrovertible, and it is highly plausible that the inhibition of such behavior and related emotions would be unhealthy. 

There is a strong association exists between the well-being, happiness, and health of people who are emotionally kind and compassionate in their charitable helping activities – as long as they are not overwhelmed, and here world view may come into play. The great challenge of urban living – and of living in general – is to live a generous life, which is also a happier and healthier one. The freedom from a solipsistic life in which one relates to others only in so far as they contribute to one’s own agendas, as well as a general freedom from the narrow concerns of the self, bring us internal benefits, as all significant spiritual and moral traditions prescribe.

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