I just read in today’s Judith Kleinfeld column:
In “The Healing Power of Doing Good,” Alan Luks investigated the emotional and health benefits of acts of kindness.
Luks sent a confidential questionnaire to 3,300 volunteers at more than 20 organizations throughout the United States. Just writing a check to a charitable organization, he found, didn’t do anything much.
But face-to-face helping produced great benefits:
–which Kleinfeld then summarizes for us; they include a feeling of euphoria, greater calm, and a sense of greater energy and health. Two of Luks’s points (as summarized by Kleinfeld) are:
• Helping others once a week or more led to the greatest health benefits.
• The greatest effects came from helping people the volunteers didn’t know, not just helping friends and family whom they had to help.
The points that catch my attention are:
- While helping others from a distance — mailing a check or signing an online petition — probably does social good, the personal benefit comes from helping flesh-and-blood people right in front of you.
- Helping people more often is better (for the helper) than doing it less often (though perhaps within the limits of having your own life and personal integrity).
- Helping strangers is more beneficial than helping your family, friends, fellow parishioners, etc.
In short: for maximum benefit, help lots of strangers, in person.
Of course, for this to happen, you need to build a life that brings you into contact with strangers often.
Two of the things that concern me about car-culture are that (1) it puts us at tremendous distances from others, so it’s harder to rub elbows with strangers in the first place, and (2) every place we are likely to see people is a destination of choice, and so the people there are mostly people of choice, not strangers.
Let’s give ourselves the euphoria and other benefits of altruism. Let’s figure out ways to rub elbows with strangers and make altruism happen more often.