Thursday, December 29, 2011

Growing the Altruistic Heart-Brain-Mind-Body

Last week a reader, Catherine Wolniewicz sent me a pointer to Maj. Scott Southworth’s story. While over in Iraq, Southworth made a seemingly impulsive decision to adopt Ala’a, a nine-year-old orphan boy with cerebral palsy. Once his impulsive “right brain–heart” connection relinquished a bit of neural real estate, interestingly the fearful, self-protective brain structures took center stage. In no uncertain terms, here’s what they had to say: “You shouldn’t adopt this boy. You are single, you have no job at home, no house, little money, and no medical expertise.” In Southworth’s struggle, we are afforded an opportunity to witness the birth of an Irrational Commitment.
If you read Southworth’s story, you will see that things are working out just fine, not only for Southworth and Ala’a, but for a multitude of others as well. In many ways, this story reminds me of Henry Thoreau’s famous quotation: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Or, in this case, begin gathering the people together and begin building the social networks (and the inevitable resulting neural structures) required to establish a solid foundation inside and out. One that can help us march forward fearlessly in the direction of our dreams.
Altruistic actions like Southworth’s, it turns out, are getting a lot of attention in research circles these days. This past March, Stephen Post published a revealing collection entitled Altruism and Health. Don Browning, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago had this to say about Post’s studies:

Do people who act generously and have kindly emotions reap benefits to themselves? Does this happen even though gaining returns does not motivate their altruistic feelings and behaviors? The path-breaking essays in this book answer these questions, with appropriate qualifications, in the affirmative. Better psychological and physical health and a longer life are the main fruits that accrue to the altruistic person. This is true for youth, adults, and the elderly, as well as for those who are already ill. This book inaugurates a new science of giving. It uncovers the realities behind the ancient truth that it is more blessed to give than receive. It is a marvelous resource for health care providers, educators, social scientists, and the inquiring general reader.
Such actions, with the benefits they provide, would seem to be worth modeling to our children, students and friends. But we don’t need research studies and external validation to know if altruistic acts work to make us feel better and improve our overall health. We can conduct our own repeated field trials. And it can actually be something we can engage in creatively, set our own rules around, and have great fun with. Here’s a memorable, magical example from my own life – Trickster Philanthropy. It includes a picture of a search-and- rescue worker that depicts the culmination of the whole story.

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