The Power of Love: 3 Studies that Prove Altruism Is the Real DealBy Matt Alesevich
At the beginning of Eckhart Tolle’s international bestseller, The Power of Now, a layman’s guide to spiritual enlightenment of sorts, he shares the tale of a beggar who’s been sitting on an old box panhandling for 30 years. A stranger stops one day and asks the man if he’s ever looked inside the box beneath him. Unamused, he assures the stranger it’s just an old box. The stranger persists, and the beggar reluctantly pries the old box open to discover a pile of gold.
Of course, Tolle’s story is one about discovering that life’s true treasure—happiness—is something ever elusive so long as we look for it outside ourselves. But popcorn spirituality aside, how does one make a meaningful withdrawal from this supposed goldmine we have within?
According to a growing number of scientific studies, altruism, the concern for others and their happiness, might be part of the answer. While seemingly paradoxical, here are three studies that show how compassion and concern come full circle.
Scanning the Happiest Man on Earth’s Brain
In June 2008, University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Richard J. Davidson scanned the brain of Matthieu Ricard, a cellular geneticist turned Buddhist monk dubbed “the happiest man in the world.” Davidson’s team outfitted Richard’s head with over 100 EEG sensors and monitored his brain waves as he meditated on compassion. The results showed Ricard, whose new book, Altruism, was released this June, had an “abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity.”
While Davis found “remarkable” results examining the brains of long term meditators, noticeable results were seen in scans of subjects who meditated 20 minutes a day in as little as three weeks.
The Kindness Curriculum Sticker Test
Working with preschoolers in Madison, Professor Davidson also developed an 8-week “Kindness Curriculum” designed to bring “mindful attention to present moment experience.” Before the program, children were given a pack of stickers and told to distribute them as they wish to photos of four children: their best friend, their least favorite child, an unknown child and a noticeably sick child. Before the course on kindness, students gave most of the stickers to their best friend. After the course, sticker distribution was nearly equal amongst all four groups. Meanwhile, over the course of a year, children in the control group, the ones receiving no Kindness Curriculum training, showed a higher propensity for selfishness, highlighting the fact that altruism is learned behavior.
Peer Support Shows Power in Numbers
In the late 90s, 132 people with multiple sclerosis were trained to provide telephone support for others suffering from their very same condition. These peer supporters were asked to fill out a quality-of-life questionnaire six times over two years. At the study’s conclusion, researchers found the trainees “showed pronounced improvement on confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, depression and role functioning.” The analysis showed an overall “dramatic” change in how subjects saw themselves and related to others.
Briefly examining just a few studies that have put altruism to the test, we discover that focusing on the happiness and wellbeing of others boomerangs back to us, creating a win-win for all involved. While we’re conditioned to equate forward progression with excessive sacrifice, the only thing we might need to sacrifice to attain true happiness is a little bit of ourselves.
Matt Alesevich is a New York City-based travel, relationship and human interest writer. His work can be found at www.mattalesevich.com and he can be followed on Twitter.
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