Feeding the Soul

In Italy we are confronted by beggars at every turn of the day,  outside our front door, in front of our local fruit and vegetable shop, in churches or in the park. As harsh as it sounds, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether each person is in genuine need or simply making the most of an opportunity. In spite of this, I never want to be immune to their plight and interacting with each of them on a daily basis has made for some real learning conversations with our children. It has enabled us to talk about altruism, philanthropy and giving, defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”. Research shows that kinder people actually live longer, healthier lives with a boost in personal performance. It seems that people who volunteer tend to experience fewer aches and pains. Significantly, people 55 years and older who volunteer for two or more organisations have a 44% lower likelihood of dying – after accounting for every other contributing factor, including health, exercise, gender, smoking, marital status, and others. This is a stronger effect than exercising four times a week and means that volunteering is nearly as beneficial to your health as quitting smoking! Giving makes us feel good because we get what researchers call a “helpers high” or a distinct physical sensation associated with helping. “Helper’s high” was named as such by Allan Luks in the early 1990s, and has since been assessed biologically in brain imaging studies and looked at in research on endorphins. One such study reported that half of the participants reported that they felt stronger and more energetic after helping others, while many also reported less anxiety and depression with increased feelings of self-worth. This is where endorphins make an entrance, triggering the reward centre in our brains responsible for euphoria, literally giving us the sensation of a “high.” Other neuroscience studies show that acts of altruism decrease stress and contribute to enhanced mental health while boosting our happiness and performance levels. On the subject of happiness, there is no research needed to prove that helping others and receiving help makes us happy. I truly believe that an essential part of raising happy and healthy kids is teaching them to be kind. My own children have always donated part of their weekly pocket money to charity and make their own decision as to whom they will give that money to. Here in Italy they decide which person they will give what they can afford to on any given day – it might be the elderly “Radiostar” who walks the cobblestone streets singing in his deep yet beautiful voice or the young man sitting on the steps watching us purchase our fruit and vegetables.  Often it is the man they feel they need to help the most, an eighty years plus gentleman who lives under an arch in the walls surrounding Lucca. While I have no doubt he appreciates the few coins they give him each time we pass, it would seem from the look on his face it is more about the human connection and kindness. I was recently offered the opportunity to enter the New York Marathon, a race I have always wanted to do. The opportunity came through Amnesty International and, for the first time, I felt total committment to doing this race. It is no longer just about completing my first marathon but helping others in the world who can’t help themselves. Yet being charitable and helping others does not have to be a financial donation or a huge undertaking like founding a charity.  Let’s face it, in tough financial times many people find it hard enough to support their own families. Nonetheless, being kind to others can be as simple as spending time with the elderly in nursing homes like my children do with their school class, passing on a parking ticket that is still active or cooking a meal for someone who can’t do it themself. It is true that “feeding the soul” can be a selfish act because in the act of giving we reap benefits, sometimes without ever being aware of them. The good news is, the benefits go both ways and provides true performance enhancement.