During his childhood on Long Island, N.Y., Stephen Post absorbed a lesson that is playing out powerfully in his and others' lives.
"Whenever I would get into an unhappy, down mood, my mother would always say, 'Well, Stevie, why don't you go out and help somebody,' " he recalls. "I would go out and rake leaves or help a neighbor put canvas over a boat."
He still remembers those small moments vividly because they did make him feel better. And they gave him the impression that helping others was rewarding. Now he knows it for sure.
For the past five years, Dr. Post has been funding research projects that test how altruism, compassion, and giving affect people's lives and well-being.
As head of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL), at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he has sponsored more than 50 studies by scientists from 54 major universities. In a wide range of disciplines – from public health to human development to neuroscience, sociology, and evolutionary biology – the studies have demonstrated that love and caring expressed in doing good for others lead people to have healthier, happier, and even longer lives.
"Giving is the most potent force on the planet ... and will protect you your whole life," says Post, a bioethicist who has taught in the medical school at Case Western for 19 years.
IRUL research is part of a significant shift under way within key scientific disciplines from focusing just on the deficit or disease model of human nature to studying the positive, virtuous, and thriving aspects. In the process, the research is
broadening the understanding of what contributes to health and longevity.
"For a long time, medicine was boxed into a biomedical model ... but there's a need for a broader view," says Doug Oman, of the University of California at Berkeley's School of Public Health. "There's an ongoing, probably long process of trying to conceptualize ... influences on health that take into account classical virtues and spirituality.... Compassion and altruism are key topics for expanding that understanding."
Even some in evolutionary biology, a field long known for proclaiming "the selfish gene," are on board.
"A lot of my colleagues view it very positively," says David Sloan Wilson, a prominent evolutionary biologist famous for his work on "group selection." Dr. Wilson has studied how altruistic teenagers fare within differing social environments – situations where they thrive and others where they are under great stress – as well as group altruism. He praises the institute for identifying and supporting "a neglected set of subjects" for research.
So encouraging are empirical results on altruistic love, that Post and science journalist Jill Neimark have co-written a new book to share the findings, titled "Why Good Things Happen to Good People." The findings include, for example:
•Generous behavior reduces depression and risk of suicide in adolescents.
•Actively helping others during the teenage years promotes good physical and mental health all the way into late adulthood.
•Volunteerism on the part of older adults significantly reduces mortality.
•Giving to others enables people to forgive themselves for mistakes, a key element in well-being.
•Praying for others reduces health difficulties among older adults.
The book also highlights stories of lives that have been transformed by generous living. And it devotes a chapter to each of 10 ways of giving to others that have proven to increase life satisfaction: nurturing, celebration, forgiveness, courage to speak out, humor, respect, compassion, loyalty, creativity, and listening.
Post has created a "Love and Longevity Scale" that offers readers practical guidelines for scoring their own habits (20 questions for each of the 10 ways of giving) – and creating their own plans for a more caring lifestyle.
Among the compelling stories is that of Jean Vanier, a former Canadian navy commander who founded the L'Arche Communities – now in 34 countries – where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together. The communities have had a profound impact on thousands of individuals who participate.
"It's abundantly clear from a number of studies that people who live generous lives also live happier lives," says Post, an ebullient man who clearly revels in the work he's doing. "Science is showing us that the transformation toward greater love that is taught in the great religions has an empirical credibility."
Over the past decade, some 500 studies have shown the power of unselfish love. A 2004 study of more than 100 communities by the University of Essex in England, for instance, revealed that neighborhoods with the highest levels of volunteerism had less crime, better schools, and happier, healthier residents. This was true in every case studied, from the inner city to the rural village.
Research on people diagnosed with various illnesses – whether it be HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, or alcoholism – revealed that those patients involved in counseling or otherwise serving others show greater improvement in their own health.
Volunteerism studies have demonstrated such positive results that some people have called for doctors to prescribe volunteer activities.
Post emphasizes, however, that it's not just the activity itself, but the feelings behind the acts that benefit those taking part. "Some people are good to others out of a sense of duty or obligation, but ... it's the love or caring underlying the action" that affects people, he says.
One study on the brain, for instance, involved people being asked to check a box next to the charity that most excites them. "The part of the brain that is deeply emotional lights up – the part that doles out feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine," Post says. "Just when they think they are going to help that organization."
Numerous studies on the brain have provided images that confirm the "helper's high" – the warm glow that people feel from helping activities. But Post doesn't conclude that it's the selfish pursuit of that high that spurs people to be givers.
"It's not just from the chemicals. There is this neurological activity in the human body," he says, "but I think there is a spiritual presence that enlivens and elevates this kind of natural substrate."
He points to powerful examples that show much more than a selfish gene at work, such as the Holocaust rescuers – people who endangered the lives of themselves and their families to rescue Jews – as well as the helpers who rushed to the World Trade Center site after 9/11, and to the Gulf Coast after Katrina.
"When we cope with catastrophic situations, that incredible capacity for widespread kindness and compassion becomes so palpable," he adds.
The IRUL has been funded by the Templeton Foundation and has other major studies under way. Big projects in the current phase of funding focus on "Agape Love and Happiness," "Perceptions of Divine Love," and the "Epidemiology of Goodness."
The institute will then turn very practical, Post says, taking all that has been learned about love and seeing "how it can be applied in interventions to make the world a better place."