Do Good Things Happen to Good People?

Posted on 06/14/10

So caring for other alcoholics, the disinhibition of self-giving love, doubles the likelihood of recovery during this one-year period. That's big news, especially since there are probably 350 to 400 12-step groups based on the 12-step paradigm.


"Giving is the most potent force on the planet and will protect you your whole life," says Dr. Stephen Post. Post is director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics and president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, which studies the relationship between altruism and happiness. It was established with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. He is also coauthor of Why Good Things Happen to Good People (Broadway Books), which makes the case that altruistic people are happier, healthier, and even live longer.

ICMany people might think it's odd to have an institute doing research in the fields of love, goodness, and how these can lead to a happier life. So tell us a bit about the kinds of studies you have supported.  

POST: We've looked carefully at the role of self-giving love, especially in the spiritual and religious contexts, with respect to the healing of the giver. That's been a big theme. For example, researchers supported by the institute have studied the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. We've followed people who've gone dry for a few months after detox and are in a 12-step program. The ones who fulfill the 12-step program by very clear measures that were developed and who also engaging themselves in the care of other alcoholics through various mechanisms have a 40 per cent recovery rate a year later. The ones who do all the other steps-surrender; let go, let God, however understood; take a moral inventory; make amends and the like-have a 22 per cent rate of recovery after a year. So caring for other alcoholics, the disinhibition of self-giving love, doubles the likelihood of recovery during this one-year period. That's big news, especially since there are probably 350 to 400 12-step groups based on the 12-step paradigm.

Our researchers have also studied the neuroscience of people's experiences of divine love as reported by themselves. We've looked at this developmentally. We've tried to understand whether people's perceptions, experiences, and beliefs in divine love protect them from post-traumatic stress and even allow them to experience post-traumatic growth, which isn't as often studied as post-traumatic stress. We focused on veterans returning from the Middle East through the VA system in California. It turns out that there is a lot of positive benefit from having a belief in divine love and even more so in having a self-reported experience of some kind of love in this universe that is higher than our own. We've studied so many elements of this in more than 70 universities around the U.S. and a little bit in Canada that the Institute has in a very brief time become the most often-cited venue for this sort in the world.

We also have looked at what you might call the humane substrate. Our studies have examined everything from attachment theory in early life and newborn development to the extent to which in later life they are able to become efficient sources of unconditional love. We studied the kinds of factors that will indicate whether some individuals will become rescuers, or not, in difficult, even genocidal situations.  

IC: What determines whether someone will become a rescuer?

POST: We have supported the work of Samuel Oliner, a sociology professor and Holocaust survivor, in this field. He's the world's leading expert. There are two important factors in whether somebody will later in life become a rescuer. One is whether the individual can look back in life and report high levels of empathy and care in the family, especially on the parent-child axis. There other thing is that rescuers report at very high levels that they were not browbeaten but rather that their parents engaged them in conversation around things like the positive version of the golden rule-not the negative but the positive version. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. These two factors alone were the strongest predictors of who would become a rescuer, including in the Holocaust.

IC: You have also studied patients in hospitals...

POST: Yes, we have supported research into the extent to which compassionate care benefits patients in the health-care system-whether or not they heal faster, whether they are compliant, whether they adhere to treatment, whether the diagnosis they receive is clearer, which it is. When patients feel the tender care of a physician, who might just say a line or two-"This must be tough. How are you handling it?"-then they tend to divulge more information more freely, and it tends to be information you could never have probed for or anticipated. The healing art requires something at its heart that we call medical love.

We've also studied the role of spirituality in organ donation. We funded a study by Robert Emmons of the Gratitude Institute at the University of California at Davis, called The Gift of One's Self: Expressions of Unlimited Love and Gratitude in Organ Donors and Recipients. Emmons has come out with some exciting conclusions about the relationship between people who have and experience or belief in unlimited love and they extent to which they are willing to become living donors, to give a kidney or part of a liver to someone they don't know-so-called anonymous donation. He also found that recipients who feel gratitude function at a higher level.

IC: The eminent scientist and geneticist Francis Collins gave your book a blurb saying that your book "convincingly demonstrates that ‘love your neighbor as yourself'" can make your life happier. Explain.

POST: Happiness is a byproduct of living generously. People who are self-described as being people of generosity and self-giving love, people who are concerned for others in their actions or in affect are happier than people who don't fall into these categories. The chief predictor of self-reported happiness is not material wellbeing. It is not the power we hold over others, the accumulation of accolades or prestige. The single most important predictor of happiness is whether a person is living as much for others as for self. A national survey (one we didn't conduct) found three indicators of whether people in America are happy. Friendships came first. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed said that friendships made them happy. They described friendship in benevolent rather than selfish terms. Seventy-five percent said that-quote-contributing to the lives of others-end quote-made them happy. Sixty-two percent said that religion or spirituality made them happy. They might go to a church or synagogue and hear a message about doing unto others or being engaged in certain kinds of altruistic activities, Habitat or whatever, with other congregants.

IC: What about altruism and longevity?

POST: A remarkable fact is that giving, even in later years, can delay death. The impact of giving is just as significant as not smoking and avoiding obesity. A 2005 study conducted by Alex Harris and Carl Thoresen of Stanford University found that frequent volunteering is strongly linked to later mortality. Called the Longitudinal Study on Aging, it followed more than 7,500 older people for six years. Volunteering was a powerful protector of mental and physical health. Another study, a 1992 survey of older people by Neal Krause of the University of Michigan found that helping others lowers depression. Krause found that, for older men, ten years of volunteering can dramatically slash mortality rates. Another researcher, Doug Oman and his colleagues did a study involving 2,025 older residents of California and found that those who volunteered had a 44 percent reduction in mortality-and those who volunteered for two or more organizations had an astonishing 63 percent lower mortality rate than non-volunteers. If you are an older adult, I have one recommendation: volunteer!

IC: You've talked about loyalty and marriage. We live in a world where people are likely to say, "I want to be happy, and if it means breaking up this marriage, the kids will understand that I needed to be happy."

POST: Love without loyalty is a joke. Imagine if someone said, "I love you, but only for 30 seconds." It wouldn't quite ring true. Loyalty is a significant expression of any kind of love worthy of the word. When we enter into marriage it's very important that we have loyalty in mind. The literature is very clear that marriages tend to last longer if they begin in friendship so when people who've been friends, who have common interests, who have loyalty on the basis of friendship marry, those relationships tend to endure more so than relationships based on a physical arousal, if you will, a kind of romantic Eros. That's not always the case, but as a generalization, it is true. The literature is very clear that Eros itself is inadequate for a long and successful marriage. All the early romantics like Stendahl and others understood this. This is the so-called Don Juan phenomenon that Kierkegaard described. It only lasts so long and then one becomes-shall we say?-a more realistic about the qualities of the other.

A study we supported by Vincent Jeffries, the sociologist at California State University, found that commitment to the relationship is an important factor for older couples who've had lasting marriages. He studied more than 50 couples who had been married for more than 25 years. He found that the couples who were happier and more in love after all these years were the ones who had a commitment to the relationship. So, in that sense, loyalty in marriage is not just loyalty to a particular spouse but it's loyalty to the sense that people have of the dignity of human beings generally considered. I don't claim that all marriages should last forever, but with regard to divorce, yeah, the idea that somehow people benefit from quick and easy divorce, both partners and children, is just not the case. What it creates is a lot of panicky, anxious emotion both in adults and in their children as they look for some kind of emotional stability in life that's not available to them. So the so-called low threshold of divorce based on what is called low conflict is not beneficial for anybody else. But when you have high-conflict situations, it's pretty clear that separation or divorce can be beneficial for spouses and children. Nobody debates that in certain circumstances-profound abuse or neglect-divorce can't be justified. But what's happened in our society is that people have extended that kind of careful justification to apply to pretty much any kind of marital relationship and that creates instability. The impact is not good. A hundred years ago or eighty years ago, people went to their psychiatrist because they were sexually inhibited. Now they go to their psychiatrist because they can't find any stable relationships in the world. They are troubled deeply and disturbed because there is no temporal glue in love, there is no connective tissue between past and present and future. There is no security, nothing can be assumed. Love without loyalty is not worthy of the word.











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