As a child growing up on Long Island, New York, Stephen Post frequently heard an aphorism from his Irish mother.
“When I would have a boring, lonely, morose day, she would always tell me, 'Stevie, why don’t you go out and do something for somebody?’ ” Post recalled in a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight.
Like a good son, Post often listened to his mother. He would walk across the road to help a neighbour rake leaves. Or he would pull a boat out of the water before winter began.
“I always sensed there was a certain kind of buoyancy and flourishing in just doing simple things that everybody can do for the people around us,” he said. “That was kind of for me, the key to happiness.”
He didn’t realize at the time that his mother’s wisdom would eventually lead him to become perhaps North America’s foremost academic authority on altruism, compassion, gratitude, and service.
Post, president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love at Case Western Reserve University, will speak at the Ridge Theatre on Friday (May 2) about studies linking good thoughts and good deeds to better health. His research has been published in many peer-reviewed publications, including the Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Science.
“When I write 'It’s good to be good,’ I’m not trying to be inauthentic about generous behaviour, saying this is the new gymnastic workout in the self-help model,” Post said. “What I am saying is as a side effect or byproduct of sincere generous living, we are happier, healthier, and odds are we will live a little longer. And we will certainly find life more meaningful.”
In other words, nice guys can finish first.
Post said he has been interested in altruism since he was in high school.
While at Cornell University, he studied the hormone oxytocin, which is linked to attachment and compassion. He obtained a PhD in religious ethics and moral philosophy from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1983 and later became a professor of medical ethics. The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love was established in 2001.
A great deal of psychological research in North America in the 20th century focused on pathologies and personality disorders. Thanks to a start-up grant from the John Templeton Foundation, which was created by the famed mutual-fund investor of the same name, Post got an opportunity to look into the consequences of being good.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the title of Post’s 2007 book is Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving (Broadway Books).
In his interview with the Straight, Post said that 12 years ago there were a half-dozen peer-reviewed articles on forgiveness; the last time he counted, there were 2,700 peer-reviewed published papers on the topic.
“That would not have happened years and years ago when people thought the only thing you could study scientifically with any legitimacy would be human disease and deficits, negative emotions like hostility, bitterness, hatred, and the like, and fear,” he commented.
Post’s book cites studies linking forgiveness to improving moods, reducing anger, alleviating depression, lowering stress-hormone levels, and preserving close relationships.
He also highlights research by Neal Krause at the University of Michigan, which showed that forgiving others unconditionally offers even greater benefits than forgiving those who demonstrate contrition or those who apologize.
“Studies show that someone who imagines an offender offering a strong apology feels more positive and experiences declines in heart rate and other physiological measures of stress,” Post writes. “In other words, apology heals the recipient.”
Forgiveness is just one of several areas that Post likes to discuss. He also pointed to neurological research linking compassion with feeling happier.
Post told the Straight about a study published in 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research showed that brains secrete happy drops when people think they’re doing altruistic things.
In this study, subjects were divided into two groups. Post said that each person was hooked up to a magnetic-resonance-imaging device. The ones in the experimental group were then given a list of charities. When they checked off boxes for imaginary donations to groups that they supported, the mesolimbic pathway in their brains lit up.
“It’s the part of the brain that’s associated with joy or happiness—also the part of the brain that doles out a lot of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and even serotonin,” Post said. “Suddenly it was possible to see a picture that actually had been understood pretty well psychologically since the late 1980s as 'helper’s high’.”
Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, who died in 1997, was a major influence on Post in his younger days. Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of his experiences at Auschwitz. He paid close attention to those who survived the Nazis’ indignities and concluded that inmates who clung to a purpose in their life generally had a better chance of success.
“For Victor Frankl, of course, the great symbolic action was that he shared his small meals with other prisoners,” Post said. “What he said was, in fact, as long as you could still do those kinds of things, you tended to have a better chance of getting through Auschwitz—all other things considered, of course.”
Post noted that Frankl’s research was largely anecdotal. More recent empirical research has suggested that being compassionate can benefit people with addictions.
One of his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University, Dr. Maria Pagano, was the lead author of a study of alcoholics who had stopped drinking. Those who helped other alcoholics in the year following treatment showed a lower relapse rate.
Post explained that the 12th step in the Alcoholics Anonymous program is to sponsor someone else with the addiction. Those who followed through on that had a recovery rate of 40 percent over the next year.
“If you do everything else but the 12th step, your recovery rate is 22 percent,” he said. “So by helping someone else, people who have problems with alcoholism double their recovery rate in a one-year period. This suggests that we can, in fact, find practical ways clinically to encourage this kind of behaviour, and in certain instances it may actually be helpful.”
Another study in the 1980s by Harvard psychologist David McClelland demonstrated that compassion can have an impact on a person’s immune system.
Post said that McClelland divided research subjects into two groups. One watched an emotionally neutral movie and the other group observed Mother Teresa helping poor people in Calcutta. Post said that those who saw Mother Teresa’s altruism on-screen turned out to have “markedly higher levels” of immunoglobulin A in their saliva. This suggested that people who watched someone being compassionate had somehow boosted their immune response.
Post said that McClelland took the study a step further. He asked half of the experimental group to close their eyes and meditate and visualize others doing compassionate deeds.
“They maintained that elevated immune system, whereas those who didn’t go through that kind of imaginative exercise went back down to baseline,” Post said.
Post, who gave a lecture at Harvard last January on happiness, said that about 20 percent of the students at the Ivy League university have reported that they suffer from depression. He said that there is ample evidence that being compassionate and altruistic can help alleviate this condition.
Near the start of his book, Post describes four domains of love: family, which he calls the inner sphere; friendships, which form the second sphere of love; community, which creates a web that sustains people; and, finally, humanity, which encompasses everyone from the person on the street selling carnations to those who live on the other side of the planet.
Post noted that many people are “rightly ambivalent about religion” because it can bring out both the best and the worst in people.
“Religion at its best teaches love for a shared or common humanity,” he said, “but what happens is sometimes it allows people to focus on some fragment of humanity and then it becomes us versus them.”
His book also describes 10 ways to provide love: celebration, generativity (nurturing others in deep and lasting ways), forgiveness, courage, humour, respect, compassion, loyalty, listening, and through creativity.
Post and a colleague, University of Miami associate professor of psychology Michael McCullough, even developed a Love and Longevity Scale, which enables people to calculate their score. It is possible to assess your progress and make improvements.
It could even improve your health. According to Post, being a generous person significantly reduces mortality later in life. It also reduces depression and suicide in adolescents, according to research financed by the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been a backlash against the happiness movement. Eric Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, recently wrote a book called Against Happiness (Douglas & McIntyre), which is a defence of melancholia, citing it as the muse for great works of art.
“Most hide behind the smile because they are afraid of facing the world’s complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties,” Wilson writes.
Post, however, cites the work of Canadian Jean Vanier as evidence that being compassionate not only offers benefits to society but can enhance your own personality and leave you feeling better.
Vanier, the 79-year-old founder of L’Arche communities for the mentally disabled, was ranked 12th in a CBC survey identifying the greatest Canadians who ever lived. Post said that Vanier is humble, attentive, and hears people very well.
Post attributed this to what Vanier learned in his years of trying to make people with severe cognitive disabilities feel significant.
Post also said that he considers Vanier a friend and an inspiration, as well as a modern-day saint. “He is a guy who, in my opinion, deserves the Nobel Prize,” Post said. “I owe it all to my mother and to people like Jean Vanier and to a few dozen others in life who really inspired me.”
The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education presents an evening with Stephen Post at the Ridge Theatre on Friday (May 2). He will sign books at 6 p.m. and present a lecture at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at Banyen Books for $15.