At one point, after witnessing thousands of people being healed in Power of Eight groups or as part of my large Intention Experiments, I began to consider that another powerful force might be responsible for all the miracles that I hadn’t accounted for: the rebound power of praying for other people.
If the healing effects experienced by my participants were some sort of by-product of altruism, what would cause the rebound effect?
Karl Pillemer of Cornell University in the USA was interested in just this question of altruism in relation to healing – interested enough to devote a big chunk of his life to a single study. He enlisted nearly 7,000 older Americans, many of whom had volunteered to help with projects attempting to address environmental issues such as pollution or toxic waste, and many others who assiduously avoided this kind of volunteer work.
Pillemer tracked the health histories of all 7,000 of his subjects for 20 years. At the end of this study, he discovered that his volunteers were far healthier and physically active, and half as likely to be depressed as the others.
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.
The best protector
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.
In fact, if you have to choose between giving and receiving, there’s no longer any question that it is better for your health to do the giving: in one study of older Americans, those who gave experienced less illness than those who were on the receiving end of their kindness. And of all the religious coping behaviors relating to better mental health, one of the major ones among a group of mentally ill patients was giving religious help to others.
The act of giving also has a huge effect on happiness. After the political scientist Robert Putnam of Harvard University wrote his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone, which woke Americans up to the fraying of the social fabric across the United States, researchers at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard decided to explore exactly what makes for happy residents and closeknit communities – by carrying out a survey of 30,000 members of diverse communities across the country.
What they found was revelatory. Unless you were poor, money just didn’t do it for people.
Once you achieved an annual income above $75,000, your emotional happiness had very little to do with your bank balance. People below that income were miserable because they were struggling just to pay the bills, but once they’d achieved that level of income, making any more money didn’t offer any greater joy.
But the one factor that did make for the greatest sense of satisfaction and happiness was lending a helping hand. In fact, those willing to give of their time or money were 42 per cent more likely to be happy than those who weren’t.
Ignoring the boiling pot
For months, Andy was one of those who just couldn’t get steady income when intending for herself or even having her Masterclass focus on her.
She then started experimenting with altruism – shifting her intention to others outside her group, and immediately she got the breakthrough she needed. Soon after, out of the blue, she found her dream coaching job.
‘At times, focusing on one’s own intention may be the metaphysical equivalent of a watched pot not boiling,’ Andy later wrote to me. ‘Focusing on the good of others and being of service takes the focus off ourselves in a way that allows movement without noticing the passage of time. Perhaps altruism is the secret way of both consciously and non-consciously NOT observing, so the desired outcome can occur.’
It’s clear that altruism brings out all the loftier emotions in us and gives our life a sense of meaning. It may even be the key to whether we live or die. The powerfully transformational mechanisms at work in my healing intention groups appeared to be the unique power of group prayer coupled with a deliberate focus away from the self.
It had 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.