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How to Immediately Improve Your Life (Hint: It Starts With Improving the Lives of Others), by Arianna Huffington


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No person is an island.

"No one can live happily who has regard for himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility," wrote the first-century Stoic philosopher Seneca in his Moral Letters to Lucilius. And in practically every religious tradition and practice, giving of oneself is a key step on the path to spiritual fulfillment.

Or, as Einstein put it, "only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."

There are 3 kinds of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.

But for the greatest positive effect, it's not just about empathy; it's about the right kind of empathy. In trying to understand our leaders' "weirdly detached" reaction to Hurricane Katrina, Daniel Goleman, a journalist and the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence,describes psychologist Paul Ekman's breakdown of the three kinds of empathy. First, there's "cognitive empathy," which is knowing how someone else feels or what they're thinking. But simply understanding another's position doesn't mean we've internalized what they're feeling. So there's also "emotional empathy," in which we actually feel what another person is feeling. This is triggered by so-called "mirror neurons." But given the amount of suffering we're so frequently exposed to, it would be too draining to live in a constant state of emotional empathy. "This can make emotional empathy seem futile," writes Goleman. But there's the third type, which Ekman designates "compassionate empathy," in which we know how a person is feeling, we're feeling their feelings along with them, and we're moved to act. So compassionate empathy is a skill we can nurture, and one that leads to action.

So this is the kind of empathy we're fueled by when we're giving back -- though even the term "giving back" is misleading. It implies that service and volunteering are important only in terms of what they do for the community or the recipient. But just as important is what they do for the giver or volunteer. And the science on this is as unambiguous as it is amazing. Essentially, giving back is a miracle drug (with no side effects) for health and well-being.

Indeed, we're so wired for it that our genes reward us for giving -- and punish us when we don't. Last month Gretchen Reynolds reported on a study by scientists from the University of North Carolina and UCLA that found that participants whose happiness was mostly hedonic (or about consuming) had high levels of biological markers that promote inflammation, which is linked to conditions like diabetes and cancer. Those whose happiness was based on service to others had health profiles showing reduced levels of these markers. Of course, we all experience a mix of both kinds of happiness, but our bodies' internal system is subtly pushing for us to augment the kind based on giving.

Giving makes us happier and healthier, and enables us to live longer:

Many other studies show the positive health boost provided by giving. A 2013 study by Dr. Suzanne Richards of the University of Exeter Medical School found that volunteering was connected to lower rates of depression, high reports of well-being, and a significant reduction in mortality risk. And a 2005 Stanford study found that those who volunteer live longer than those who don't.

The effects of giving back as we age are especially dramatic:

  • A study from Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin found that seniors who volunteered had significantly lower rates of depression than non-volunteers.
  • A 2011 Johns Hopkins study found that volunteering seniors were more likely to engage in brain-building activities, which lowers the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Regaining a sense of purpose among older people who had suffered the loss of their defining roles as parents or wage earners is another advantage of volunteering.

Studies of the effects of giving in the workplace are equally dramatic and show that the way to a more productive business and a healthier, more creative and collaborative workforce is not by continuing our culture's dangerous devotion to burnout and overwork. For instance,a 2013 study by United Health Group found that employee volunteer programs increased engagement and productivity. The same study showed that:

  • Over 75 percent of the employees who had volunteered said they felt healthier.
  • Over 90 percent said their volunteering had put them in a better mood.
  • Over 75 percent reported experiencing less stress.
  • Ninety-six percent said that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life (which in turn has been found to strengthen our immune function).
  • Employees who volunteered also reported improved time-management skills and enhanced ability to connect with peers.

Another 2013 study, this one by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, found that employees who give back are more likely to assist their colleagues, more committed to their work and less likely to quit. "Our findings make a simple but profound point about altruism: helping others makes us happier," says Donald Moynihan, one of the study's authors. "Altruism is not a form of martyrdom, but operates for many as part of a healthy psychological reward system."

It doesn't necessarily involve giving money:

As Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen put it in her book Giving 2.0, it may involve helping "business professionals donate skills in areas such as strategic planning, management, human resources, marketing, design, or IT to nonprofits in need of those skills."

Arianna Huffington explains more in her article, too:

http://huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/how-to-immediately-improv_b_3895912.html

Via @emmaseppala:

The brain is built for generosity and compassion.

Read more: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324009304579041231971683854.html

I like direct options.  I also enjoy herding facts towards accessible ground where we readers and others can use them to improve direct experience of our world.  Emotions are fun to talk about because they are accessible to everyone.  And improving our experience of emotions in the world for ourselves also improves experience for everyone else around us.  Emotions are not dictated by any specific acts of hedonism of eudaimonism, or environmental cues, unless we choose to leave them wired that way by circumstance or caprice.  Emotions are born neurologically free within us and they can be liberated from any social norms, or wedded to them:

1. I (and all others) create emotion by doing things, as emotions will spontaneously arise without consciously thinking about experiencing them--our environment matters.

2. I also can think myself into a particular emotional feeling state without doing the things, or being in the environments, that inspire that emotion to spontaneously arise--our thinking matters.

3. Because I can sense if my own emotions are arising from my own thoughts, or from direct external experience of my environment, I can now also distinguish pulses of others' emotions arising from direct external experience of their environment, without judging or participating in those emotions unless I choose to do so--other people are part of my feeling environment.

4. I sometimes imagine sensing a person's emotion arising from their thought forms, instead of from direct influences in their environment and as I've no objective proof of this outside of a lab it can lead to arguments, if I'm explicit and pushy about it--I am also part of the feeling environment for other people.

5. Even if an emotion doesn't feel good to me, but I want to keep feeling it because it just seems right for the occasion, I let it roll--hey, it's ok if it's all about me sometimes.

6. If I want to change an emotion I'm feeling, then I do so, either by thinking my way into a different emotion that displaces and upgrades my current feeling state, or by changing my environment.  Being stuck on an airplane in turbulence is a particularly fertile opportunity for bullet-proofing all thinking-my-way-into-an-emotional-upgrade skills--this is about me being with others.

7.  After much practice at #2 above and learning that all my emotions are more limber and flexible than I ever imagined, I've lost all fear, anxiety or impatience in their natural rise and fall and simply choose or don't choose to feel the way I feel most of the time--this is about me being alone and with all others. 

8. The way I feel is mostly all natural autopilot now, with smooth flying in rise and fall and very little unwelcome emotional turbulence--every emotion has its season and it's good to welcome each one with generous hospitality.

9. Sometimes I like getting into turbulence...

Well said but you remind me that emotions take many years to master....

Haha, I've been pretty stubborn and obtuse towards learning new things my whole life--more than most.  That's why it's taking me a lifetime to get the basics down...and I'm still learning them.

Honestly, it really doesn't take long to make significant progress if you practice a method that works for you an hour a day, every day.  Your effort extends only if you get stuck doing things that simply don't work for you--drop those practices like cold turds--I've plenty of practice at those things.  As Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." 

You will know a practice method works if you get immediate progress, and that progress should build into ever more spontaneous and dramatic gains.  Progress should be directly felt...not based on somebody else's observations or promises for gains to come later if only you believe.  Bah!

That said, it's impossible to predict which methods will work for you, now, where you are... you can just hit the buffet variety and graze awhile until a specific practice jumps out at you and fits into your life with natural ease, then stick to that choice--be deliberate, methodical and focused.

Good practice wins the day, every day.  And it only takes days, not years... about 100 consecutive days actually.

PS  You can make up your own practices from your own creative imagination.  That's what all the masters do.  And that's also what makes them masters.

100 consecutive days of anything turns out to be very, very hard.

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