I’m having major doubts about the benefits of self-help after observing the effects on the people in Power of Eight groups who don’t intend for themselves but intend for someone else in the group.
For a long time, I puzzled about the healing effects of the Intention Experiments and Power of Eight groups and why participants doing the sending would overcome long-standing conditions of their own until I came across perhaps the most compelling piece of research of all.
The unhealthy effects of the good life
It had been carried out by psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who wanted to examine the difference in likely future health between healthy people who live a fulfilling life of pleasure—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.
The rebound power of helping
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 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.” Our need to help other people is perhaps the one element that gives our life the greatest meaning.
This research has led me toward a heretical thought. Maybe the endpoint of the “I want, I get” good-life scenario promoted as ‘the power of intention’ 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.
I’ve now considered 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 was simply reaching out to someone else. And if that is true, the entire New Age premise of intention—using the universe as essentially a restaurant with you the customer ordering whatever dinner you happen to fancy—was wrong.
Getting what you wanted in your own life started with the readiness to give.
As my husband once wrote, Jean-Paul Sartre was mistaken. Hell is not other people. Hell is thinking there are other people.
Bryan was talking about the fact we are simply a single consciousness and the falsity of thinking that we are separate. I would just add a little coda. 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.