For several years now I’ve had one of Stephen Post’s books (written with Jill Niemark) on my ever-expanding, books-to-be-read shelf. Why Good Things Happen to Good People seemed like a book I should read, but the title failed to trigger many excitement centers in my brain. Why Bad Things Happen to Bad People – now there’s a title that readily grabs attention: my brain wants to protect me and mine from becoming one of those bad people that bad things happen to.
Nevertheless, last week I took Professor Post’s book down off the shelf and began reading it. And I couldn’t stop. Post ran an institute for many years at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine funded by legendary investor, Sir John Templeton. His center had an unlikely name at an academic institution (never mind, at a medical school): The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love.
Post and his colleagues have spent several decades dreaming up and carrying out scientific research on love and its many benefits.
Love and Longevity
The first major benefit Post and his colleagues discovered is that people who love and give, live significantly longer than those who don’t. To structure this research, scientists at the University of Miami devised The Love and Longevity Scale. That scale has four, increasingly expanding domain areas: family, friends, community and humanity. The scale then measures love and giving across ten action areas: celebration, generativity (helping others grow – composting and turning another’s garden in preparation for spring), forgiveness, courage, humor, respect, compassion, loyalty, listening and creativity. Guess what? My hypothesis would be that each of these ten action areas potentially operates in the brain as radical neural enrichers (I already have tons of evidence that Listening does, and Post asserts that listening renders love beautiful, and much of the research out of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love would seem to support that notion).
Besides living longer, people who love and give, live longer happier. Afterall, what’s the point of living longer if you’re miserable? Duh. Lovers and givers also live longer healthier, and the way many of them do that is through the cultivation of something called a Gratitude Practice: fifteen minutes a day of thinking about and writing down different things they feel grateful for. In one study of organ donors, for example, the more gratitude they felt the faster they recovered, and with fewer complications to boot.
The Evolution of Attention
I think it’s instructive that the title of Post’s book didn’t initially grab me, though. That’s probably because my brain pays much more attention to threats. There seems to be an evolutionary process at work. Just as it’s taken decades for the field of psychology to begin to embrace its positive side, and similar to how it’s taken more than 50 years for General Mills to develop Chocolate Cheerios (well, maybe not so similar, even though chocolate appears to reduce blood pressure along with the risk of heart disease), the human brain apparently still needs to go through several developmental iterations and achieve much greater integration before such things as love and gratitude draw sufficient interest to spread with wild abandon across the planet.
So, how might we work to increase that interest and manage to raise kids rooted in an awareness that love and gratitude and giving are of great benefit to the brain, heart and hollow organs? Well, we could simply tell them, like I’m telling everyone right here, right now. But what’s the likelihood of telling being able to get anyone at all fired up enough to go out and take action? Slim and none? Perhaps the old writer’s gnome is more in order: show, don’t tell. Or perhaps, for me, it’s act – don’t preach.
The Power of Intention and Focus
By way of showing, Millard Fuller’s story is one of my favorite examples that demonstrates the power of love and giving. A successful attorney in Washington, DC, Fuller came home one day to his wife Linda announcing that she was leaving their marriage. He convinced her to grant him a “hearing.” Turns out she hated their lifestyle. So, he agreed to chuck it all, giving away most of the “tainted” millions he’d made as a lawyer. And then, with the financial slate pristine and pure, the two of them set out to found Habitat for Humanity. To date, Habitat is responsible for building 350,000 homes in 90 countries and providing their owners with low or no-interest loans. Think about that: a no-interest mortgage loan! What a concept. Hard to have a housing crisis with home loans like that.
If the Fuller’s story doesn’t inspire you to action, check out this account by Ian Parker in the New Yorker about Zell Kravinsky. Zell not only gave away most of the 45 million dollars he made as a real estate developer, but then he voluntarily donated a kidney to an anonymous recipient. Afterward, because he was so moved by the act (apparently Zell’s brain’s pleasure centers were really stoked by the donation), he seriously considered donating his remaining kidney and going on dialysis! Crazy Zell. Or else, someone simply really overcome with the power of love and giving and gratitude.
So, what would it take to inspire YOU this week to an act of Crazy Loving and Giving? Something that would inspire your love enough to get some heavy lifting done?