Good Friday and the symbolism of Jesus’s death and rebirth is a good time to reflect on perhaps the single greatest piece of self-help advice ever told:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
And if you don’t believe that this is the key to your own healing in every regard, ponder this piece of research about the transformational effects of altruism.
It had been carried out by psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who wanted to examine the difference in likely future health between healthy people who live a fulfilling life of pleasure (lots of money, loads of material stuff, exclusive holidays, etc) – what we’d normally define as the good life – compared to those who live a life of purpose or meaning.
The researchers examined the gene expressions and psychological states of 80 healthy volunteers in both groups. Although the members of the two groups had many emotional similarities, and all claimed to be highly content and not depressed, their gene expression profile couldn’t have been more divergent.
Among the pleasure seekers, the psychologists were amazed to discover high levels of inflammation, considered a marker for degenerative illnesses, and lower levels of gene expression involved in antibody synthesis, the body’s response to outside attack.
If you hadn’t known their histories, you would have concluded that these were the gene profiles of people exposed to a great deal of adversity, or in the midst of difficult life crises: a low socioeconomic status, social isolation, diagnosis with a life-threatening disease, a recent bereavement.
These people were all perfect candidates for a heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, even cancer. In a few years, they would be dropping like flies.
Those whose lives were not as affluent or stress-free but were purposeful and filled with meaning, on the other hand, had low inflammatory markers and a down regulation of stress-related gene expression, both indicative of rude good health.
If you have to choose one path over the other, the researchers concluded, choosing a life of meaning over one just chasing pleasure is undeniably better for your health.
This all sounds counterintuitive to us in the West, with our emphasis on material success at any cost, but it has to do with what exactly constitutes ‘meaning’ in our lives, and the best way to gauge that is what ultimately helps ill people get better – the one aspect of life that will turn around a serious illness.
Scientists from Boston College in the USA discovered this when trying to figure out why patients suffering from chronic pain and depression markedly improved in both disability and mood once they began helping others in the same boat.
As they repeatedly noted to the researchers, it was all about ‘making a connection’ and being provided with ‘a sense of purpose.’
If you’re suffering from some sort of condition, you’re more likely to overcome it once you turn your attention to someone else. That was the conclusion of one study of more than 800 Americans suffering from severe stress who were followed by University of Buffalo researchers for five years to compare the state of their health with the extent to which they’d helped anyone outside the home, including relatives, friends or neighbors.
That little bit of helping acted like a bulletproof vest. When faced with future stressful situations like illness, financial difficulties, job loss or death in the family, those who’d helped others during the previous year were far less likely to die than those who hadn’t.
In fact, the contrast between the people who’d helped and those who didn’t could not have been starker. When faced with each new stressful event, those who’d decided not to lend a hand increased their chances of dying by a whopping 30 per cent.
Our need to help other people is perhaps the one element that gives our life the greatest meaning.
It’s clear that altruism brings out all the loftier emotions in us; it might be the emotion that most defines our humanity – our sense of a life well lived. It may even be the key to whether we live or die.
But the powerfully transformational mechanisms at work in my healing intention Power of Eight® groups appear to be the unique power of group prayer coupled with a deliberate focus away from the self.
It has been there all along, in the early Christian teachings, all those homilies so familiar that they that now sound like words on a Hallmark card:
Do unto others. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Focusing on someone else heals the healer.
All this research leads us towards a heretical thought. Maybe the endpoint of the ‘I want, I get’ good-life scenario is that it ultimately kills you.
I want, I get – I get sick.
The key to a long and healthy life is living a life that concerns itself with a meaning beyond satisfying the needs of number one.
Just think of how dangerous some tenets of the ‘self-help’ movement might ultimately be.
All that focus on the self could ultimately be terrible for your health, and highly unnecessary.
The quickest route to rewriting your own life’s script is simply reaching out to someone else.
Getting what you want in your own life starts with the readiness to give. In seeing yourself in the other, in joining together as one, other people, it turns out – particularly a small group of them praying with you – are your salvation.
Happy Easter or Passover. May you find a way to give of yourself this weekend – particularly in a group.
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