experiments, instruments & measurement book

The Neuroscience of Giving

11/13/14

By Susie Tessel

An important Jewish precept is that one person can make a difference. We are all created in God’s image, and when we emulate God’s qualities, each of us can make a difference. This concept is evident in the biblical stories, which are both their stories and yours. In each case we see the dramatic effect of a single individual.

In a couple weeks we will celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah. There too, Mattathias and Judah Macabee made a difference – and changed history. That’s a crucial component of the Hanukkah story. A new book provides a contemporary proof. A Path Appears, by Nicholas Kristof (a columnist for the New York Times) and his wife, Cheryl WuDunn (a columnist for the Wall Street Journal), details fantastic examples of extraordinary, life-changing programs which were started by one person, to the benefit of the many, many beneficiaries. Each vignette merits careful consideration. Many of us are involved in service-oriented models in which our students and/or their parents participate in text study, followed by an activity and finally, reflection.

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Inspired quotations begin each chapter. These can be used beneficially (as do the authors) as the points to initiate textual studies. The book has seemingly countless examples and a very thorough glossary of different types of projects one can support.

Kristof and WuDunn also provide a section detailing the neurological benefits of helping others. The latest neuroscience proves the maxim “money can’t buy happiness”. A growing body of research in science and psychology suggests that altruism is good not just for the beneficiaries but also for the benefactors. Helping others makes us happy, and even leaves us healthier and able to live longer lives. People feel happier when they connect with a cause larger than themselves. Research suggests that altruists seem disproportionately likely to age gracefully and maintain their health, and the researchers have found that willingness to help others seems more important to longevity then cholesterol levels.

Through the miracles of MRIs and the latest neuroscience, they demonstrate how the “happiness boost” (of oxytocin) that a person receives from the efforts made to help others exceeds what one would get from an equivalent effort to help one’s self. They emphasize that compassion is natural, and that we may even be “hard-wired” to be kind to others. It is an integral part of our humanity. So why aren’t people more generous? They explain that we are subject to social and market pressures that distort our generous inclinations. The most affluent 20 percent of the population give a smaller share of their income to charity than the bottom 20 percent. They also suggest that we are further thwarted from doing good because we are so removed from poverty. We are never exposed to it, so we are insulated from their poverty. The most effective charitable activities are those that connect people with individuals, or better yet, face-to-face interactions. These promote the strongest flow of oxytocins. Personalized compassion facilitates the most effective giving. Paul Zak, a neuroscientist, has shown that acts of kindness are like exercising a muscle: Each such act strengthens the capacity for additional acts. For me, this book was a clarion call for action. Let’s flex those muscles and get moving!!

This book provides a plethora of opportunities to change lives for the better, including our own. “A life with meaning isn’t a destination. It’s a journey.”

What’s your itinerary?

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