Last week, I spent some time with my 13-year-old, triplet cousins. Without giving away my exact age (a lady never tells, right?), let’s just say that I’m about two decades older than them… which makes my time with them absolutely fascinating. Not only are our interests different (duh), but so are our views of the world. Spending time with them gives me the rare opportunity to see the world through youthful, unblemished eyes.
We talked about junior high and Taylor Swift. We talked about their love for animals (they have three, large Golden Retrievers), ice-cream, and Harry Potter. The night flew by, and at the end of dinner when it was time to say goodbye, I found myself regretting that we hadn't discussed anything more substantial. I left feeling remiss that I didn't know their hopes and dreams.
I don’t get to see that side of my family very much. Cousins on my dad’s side, they live in Connecticut while I reside in Nevada. In fact, it had been five years since my last visit, and even though I knew what to expect, seeing them as teenagers was oddly nostalgic. It made me long for the days before I knew the consequences of war or the endless corruption of man. It made me long for innocence.
It also made me long for happiness. It is one of the simplest nouns, but it is oftentimes incredibly difficult to obtain. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an unhappy person, far from it, but spending time with America’s youth, my blood, made me yearn for more.
That night, I wracked my brain, trying to figure out what was missing from my life. There was a hole there, a void that needed to be filled. It was just a matter of figuring out what it was.
Just as I was starting to drift off, it hit me.
My life was absent of altruism.
I’m certainly not a stranger to the work. I’ve sorted perishables at food banks, cooked dinners at women’s shelters, and taught seniors how to use their computers. I’ve even served on the board of a Los Angeles-based children's charity. Volunteering has always been something that has been present in my life’s, but after leaving Corporate America about a year ago to focus on my writing, my volunteer efforts suddenly became non-existent. I had become so focused on following my dreams that I had completely forgotten about my passion for charity.
As soon as I arrived back home in Las Vegas, I headed to my local library. It was time to start giving back, and given that I’m a young adult, science fiction author, volunteering to help with books in some capacity seemed like a no-brainer. I walked in, perused their program list, and decided to sign-up to read to kids once a week.
I skipped out of the library with a new lease on life. Each step felt lighter, each breath felt fuller, and I hadn’t even actually done any volunteering yet! Which got me to thinking…why does the simple act of volunteering, or in this case, the commitment to volunteer, make me feel so good? And it’s not just me. Altruism is a phenomenon that has been circling the globe for millennia, in fact, the theme is present in several of the world’s most well-known religions.
In Christianity, it is central to the teachings of Jesus. In the Gospels of the New Testament, time and time again he tells his followers to help those in need and give to the poor. Referred to as Zakat, charity is the Third Pillar of Islam and is required of all financially stable Muslims. In Judaism, altruism, known as Tzedakah in Hebrew, is dictated in the Torah and is considered, by some, to be the meaning of life. Buddhists, who many theologians consider to be the most altruistic of all the world’s modern religious people, focus their love and compassion on others. India’s other three major religions focus on charity, too. In Jainism, worshipers give themselves up for others, in Hinduism, karma is created and maintained through acts of kindness, and in Sikhism, altruistic acts are the greatest deeds one can do.
Altruism in religion has been around for a long time, and even though it is something some of these doctrines command, I have a sneaking suspicion that the concept has withstood the test of time because it made religious patrons feel good, too.
Why? Because science tells us it does.
Let's take a journey back to 1988 when 1,700 female volunteers were surveyed. The results of the study revealed that 68% of the test subjects felt a sense of calm after volunteering. They specified further, stating that the feeling was similar to what they experienced after exercising.
Decades later, researchers took it a step further by studying MRI image scans to track brain activity. If the subject donated money, they observed a spike in the brain's mesolimbic reward system (the part of the brain that registers pleasure). When altruism was doled out in person, like volunteering at a soup kitchen, for example, oxytocin (a calming hormone) and pain-killing endorphin levels, rose. They also noted a decrease in stress hormones (like cortisol) when the subjects simply focused on the needs of others over their own.
And those are only the immediate benefits. Studies have shown that altruism leads to a stronger immune system, less on-going pain, and a healthier heart. People who volunteer consistently are also better at fighting addiction and are less likely to develop dementia. In 2013, 1,654 older adults were studied and those who volunteered more than 200 hours per year were 40% less likely to suffer from high blood pressure.
But I don’t volunteer because I want to avoid hypertension. And I don’t volunteer because of religious doctrine. I volunteer because it makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself. I volunteer for the smiles, hugs, and endless gratitude. I volunteer because I want to influence those around me for the better and give to the people who need it the most. I volunteer because, even after all these years, and despite the world’s infinite injustices, I still believe in the power of love.
The next time I see my cousins, whether it be in five, 10, or 15 years, I’m sure the conversation will have progressed from pop-stars and puppies to politics and parenting. I’m sure their views of the world will also change. I can only hope that all three will someday share my passion for charity. It’s the greatest hope I have for them and for everyone, for that matter. In my humble opinion, altruism is mankind’s greatest gift…and our greatest hope for the future.