Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
- Helen Keller
By rights, Helen Keller cannot be considered an expert on happiness any more than you or I. However, as the blind and deaf woman who went from total lack of communication skills at age 10 to a gifted and inspirational speaker and writer as an adult, she has a right to be heard because she may have found true happiness.
Let's look at the "fidelity to a worthy purpose" part. Altruism (helping another person with no thought of benefit to ourself) has mystified philosophers, psychologists (and recently neuroscientists) for hundreds of years. Does altruism have a biological source built into us or do some of us learn to help others without thinking of how we would benefit?
The suspicion among doubters has always been that some people receive a benefit from doing good, from helping others. They reward themselves, the doubters believed. Now science has weighed in on the subject.
Researchers in Delaware (USA) studied how the brain deals with our built in reward system. Using MRI scanners and virtual computer programming, they examined how the brain of testees reacted when presented with various situations that most people would consider to be happy situations. Being given a favourite kind of candy or sweet would be one example.
In some cases, they were given money for doing a task. In others they were given money for doing nothing, no strings attached. As evidence that the participants submersed themselves into the virtual world, the parts of their brain that react positively to rewards (we can call it the "reward centre") lit up every time something good happened to them.
The reward centre is a fundamental component of the human brain. It is located partly in the brain stem, which harkens about as far back in evolution as primates go, maybe earlier. In other words, "sweet" brought a reward in the brain to our pre-human ancestors as much as it does to us.
What surprised the researchers was that the participants, when given a large sum of money then offered the option to give some of it away to a worthy charity that was entirely fictitious and had no background provided to the participants, most of them chose to give away some of their money to the charities.
The reward centres of their brains reacted either to the same degree when they gave away money to a charity as when they received it with no investment (like winning a lottery), or they reacted even stronger in some cases. That is, for some people giving away money to a charity (the closest the researchers could come to virtual altruism) was more rewarding than receiving money without a prior investment.
At the least, the charitable donation provided as much reward as receiving the money in the first place. Not everyone chose to give some money to charity, but almost all did.
Because the reward centre is partly in the ancient brain stem, the researchers believe that altruism must have a biological component that has existed for a very long time into our history. The lower part of the frontal lobes, another ancient brain component, also lit up in those "sweet" situations.
Science proved that people enjoy helping others. It given us pleasure to do it.
Does this prove that people do things like giving to charities or helping others just because it makes them feel good? The cynical would say yes.
However, the science proved that helping others has a genetic component. Helping others is part of who we are as a species.
If it's part of who we are, genetically speaking, perhaps it's also part of our purpose for being here.
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, striving to help us understand what we really are all about.
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