Do good things happen to good people?

Barney Zwartz ponders altruism and the science behind the positive effects of giving.

Some of my more emphatically atheist friends deny the possibility of altruism. Humans always act in their own perceived best interest, they say, if we but dig deep enough. Those who sacrifice themselves for others do so because it makes them feel better about themselves, the argument at its most crude puts it.

Frankly, I find that fatuous and contrary to the facts of human experience. But I was curious to discover that while deniers of altruism misunderstand motivation they may have a point about the result. Or, in other words, that good things happen to good people.

We at the Centre for Public Christianity have just interviewed Dr Stephen Post, director of the Centre for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York.

He has done considerable research on unselfish, compassionate love at the interface of science, ethics, spiritual thought, and behavioural medicine.

“Good things don’t always happen to good people,” Post observes. “No one gets out of life alive.”

But various branches of science – including science of the brain, human development and happiness – are now categorical that people who are generous, compassionate, kind and helpful tend to be happier, more resilient, less anxious, more buffered from depression, and even live a little longer.

Apparently, when acting in a way that looks to the needs of others, the mesolimbic pathway in the brain, also known as the reward pathway, becomes active and releases dopamine, one of the happiness chemicals.

And this starts young: people who give as high school students are likely to have better physical and mental health in late adulthood.

Psychologist Paul Wink studied 200 people who have been followed closely since the 1920s and found that an attitude of giving protected longevity and mental health even 50 years later.

The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is ancient wisdom that has resonated through the ages.

Even thinking charitable thoughts through praying for others reduces health difficulties in old age, a University of Michigan study found. And a recent Harvard University study showed that just watching a movie of helping activity boosts the immune system.

Christians, of course, already knew this basic truth. The Apostle Paul, on his way to execution in Rome, gives his final admonition to the elders of Ephesus that they must help the weak, “remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’.”

And the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is ancient wisdom that has resonated through the ages.

I’m not sure that I started young, or even that I’ve started at all. But my father told me repeatedly, as he despatched me on some domestic chore for which I vainly sought recompense, “virtue is its own reward”.

It seems he definitely had a point.

This article first appeared in The Age.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity.