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It’s Good to be Good Stephen G. Post, Ph.D. Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics – Stony Brook University. Is Virtue It’s Own Reward?. A “good” (generous & caring) life is usually happier, healthier, and even a little longer?

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It s good to be good stephen g post ph d

It’s Good to be GoodStephen G. Post, Ph.D.

Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and

Bioethics – Stony Brook University

Is virtue it s own reward
Is Virtue It’s Own Reward?

  • A “good” (generous & caring) life is usually happier, healthier, and even a little longer?

  • Lincoln’s religion: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad.”

  • Thoreau, “Goodness is the only investment that never fails.”


  • Emerson, “no man can sincerely help another without helping himself”

  • “Those who enrich others will be enriched.” (Proverbs 11:25)

A scientific approach
A Scientific Approach

  • Psychiatrist Hans Selye, MD, discoverer of the “stress response” (Nature, 1936), wrote that giving “love, good will and gratitude” are good for you.

Better than a hostile heart
Better Than….A Hostile Heart

  • Redford B. Williams, MD, Duke

  • 27 Questions From the MMPI

  • Looked at those who took MMPI in 1950 at age 25

  • 20% of high hostility quartile dead by age 50; 2% of low quartile

  • “acid on metal” over time

The hostile heart
The Hostile Heart

  • Drawing on the national ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) researchers reported that angry middle-aged people (N=12,986, men and women) are three times more likely to experience cardiac arrest than less angry counterparts (J.E. Williams, et al., Circulation, 101 (17), 2034-2039).

Forgiveness health
Forgiveness & Health

  • Fredric Luskin of Stanford (Forgive For Good, 2002) began studying Protestant and Catholic mothers whose children were killed in political-religious classes. Forgiveness interventions lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormones, improved depression, and enhanced self-reported health.

The power of compassion
The Power of Compassion

  • Positive emotions, especially empathy and compassion, allow people to overcome vengefulness and hostility.

    (ME McCullough, et al., J of Per and Social Psychology, 73, 321-336)

Positive psychology the shift effect
Positive Psychology & the “Shift Effect”

  • Karl Menninger, MD: “Love cures – both those who give it and those who receive it.”

  • Lev. 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge,…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The road to milesberg
The Road to Milesberg

  • Exit 58 on Route 80

I gift love and happiness

  • Self-reported happiness slightly down since 1936

  • Depression and anxiety up tenfold since 1960

  • The 20th-century Hindu sage J. Krishnamurti wrote, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

  • Harvard Veritas Lecture

Happiness polls
Happiness Polls

  • 2005 Time Poll on major sources of happiness (77% “relationship with your children”; 76% “your friends and friendships”; 75% “contributing to the lives of others”; 62% “religious or spiritual life and worship”

Just thinking of giving creates joy
Just Thinking of Giving Creates Joy

  • fMRI revealed that making a donation activated the mesolimbic pathway, and increased dopamine levels (Moll, et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2006)

Helper s high
“Helper’s High”

  • half of helpers report a "high" feeling

  • 43% felt stronger and more energetic

  • 28% felt warm

  • 22% felt calmer and less depressed

  • 21% experienced greater feelings of self-worth

  • 13% experienced fewer aches and pains (Luks, Psychology Today, 1988)

Is it just selfishness
Is It Just Selfishness?

  • “If you want to define selfishness so widely as to include the warm glow that people feel after giving selflessly to others, then we need more of it.” Stephen G. Post, ABC 20/20, August 24, 2007)

Money can buy happiness
Money Can Buy Happiness!

  • 632 Americans surveyed about their spending habits. Income NOT related to happiness, but those who spent more on gifts and charities were happier. Boston employees tracked before & after received a bonus. Those spending more on others were happier. Researchers gave college students either $5 or $20, and told them to spend it either on themselves or others. At the end of the day, those who spent it on others reported more happiness. Making a donation of just $5 can improve your mood. Science, March 2008. Harvard Business School.

Mental capital and wellbeing report
Mental Capital and Wellbeing Report

  • Oct. 22, 2008 release of Mental Capital and Wellbeing Report, compiled by 400 British scientists in the Government’s most prestigious think tank, the Foresight Project

  • Five categories of activities that make the largest difference in wellbeing include, fifth of which is “giving to neighbors and communities”

Happiness resilience giving
Happiness, Resilience, & Giving

  • Jim

  • Sister Leola McNair

  • Dan Gottleib

Ii gift love and mental health

  • Volunteers scored significantly higher in life satisfaction and will to live, and had fewer symptoms of depression (Musick & Wilson, Social Science and Medicine, 2003)

  • “Moral Treatment” 1820s

  • “Clubhouse Movement” 1960s

Emotions and health youth
Emotions and Health: Youth

300 pre-teens in the Bay Area followed every ten years since the 1920s. Those who identified compassion and generosity as important were healthier and happier 50 years later (protected from depression & some physical illnesses). Giving in high school predicted good mental and physical health into late adulthood (Wink & Dillon, In the Course of a Lifetime, 2007)


  • The 12th Step – help another person with your problem! Bill W & Dr. Bob

  • 40% of those who fulfilled the 12th step were sober one year out; only 22% of those who did not (Pagano, et al., J of Studies on Alcohol, 2004)

Ms patients
MS Patients

  • MS patients trained to provide compassionate love

  • Over two years, those in this group showed “pronounced improvement in self-confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, depression and role functioning.” (Schwartz & Sendor, Social Science and Medicine, 1999)

Iii gift love and physical health

  • Altruism in persons with HIV significantly related to lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (Ironson, in Altruism and Health, ed. S.G. Post, Oxford University Press, 2007)

Just thinking of doing good
Just Thinking of Doing Good

  • In a Harvard University study, a film about Mother Teresa’s work showed increases in the protective antibody salivary immunoglobulin A (S-IgA) (McClelland, et al., Psychology and Health, 1988)

Mortality reduction
Mortality Reduction

  • High volunteers: lowest mortality rate for both genders (30% reduction) (Oman, et al., J of Health Psychology, 1999)

  • Possibly associated with optimism (Duke, 900 older adults followed for 15 years, 24% reduction in mortality for high optimists.

Emotions and longevity the nun study
Emotions and Longevity: The Nun Study

  • School Sisters of Notre Dame

  • Autobiographical writings completed at a young age (D. Danner, et al.,J of Per and Soc Psychology, 2001). Those who used high numbers of positive emotion words lived 6 to 10 years longer than those using few.

Mortality reduction1
Mortality Reduction

  • National study of older adults by Stanford University researchers: “….more frequent volunteering is associated with delayed mortality even when the effects of socio-demographics, medical and disability characteristics, self-ratings of physical activity and social integration and support are controlled.” (Harris & Thoreson, J of Health Psychology, 2005)

Mortality reduction2
Mortality Reduction

  • University of Michigan researchers, in a longitudinal study of older adults, after correcting for all variables, concluded “In this study, older adults who reported giving support to others reduced mortality.” This was true whether the adults were helping neighbors, friends, relatives, or a spouse (Brown, et al. Psychological Science, 2003)

Iv message pay it forward
IV. Message: “Pay It Forward”

  • A disposition to benefit others, so long as not overwhelmed, seems to contribute to happiness, health and even longevity

  • Evolution, neurology, social science, biomedicine, game theory, spirituality and human development converge

  • A message in families, schools, hospitals, prisons, businesses, professions, etc.

A research goal
A Research Goal

  • How do our complex brains, unique imaginations, communicative abilities, reasoning powers, moral sense, and spiritual promptings give rise to this remarkable yet not at all uncommon practice of unselfish love for our neighbors, or for those we do not even know? Why is this practice good for us?

V a good doctor or nurse
V. A “Good” Doctor or Nurse

  • It does not take a lot to offer each patient some compassionate words, even in brief encounters, and this practice isfulfilling

  • For professionals who are regularly confronted with suffering, “empathy over arousal” (EOA) has risks, so step away to replenish

  • Meanings matter (Dame Cicely Saunders)

Mass general hospital foyer
Mass General Hospital Foyer

“For the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.” (Dr. Francis W. Peabody, 1921)

Many patients feel that the most significant ethical issue in health care is being treated like a biological slab

Virtues quandaries
Virtues & Quandaries

  • Often quandaries (a feeding PEG? forced C-section? Janet Atkins?) do not allow much objectivity

  • Virtues tend to be more objective (doctors, e.g., compassion, equanimity, diligence, loyalty, integrity, etc.)


  • “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Oliver Wendell Holmes


  • Sooner or later, all the people’s of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace …The foundation of such a method is love. Martin Luther King. Jr.

  • The unifying characteristic of the qualities I have described as ‘spiritual’ may be said to be some level of concern for others’ well-being. The Dalai Lama


  • We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give. Winston Churchill

  • We can do no great things – only small things with great love. Mother Teresa

Rx =

  • Visualize in the morning early to focus on what is really important in the day

  • Consistency

  • Be a good receiver (high givers often are not)

Warning don t believe bad science or bad philosophy
Warning! Don’t Believe Bad Science or Bad Philosophy

  • ArdreyvsdeWaal

  • Freud vs Erikson

  • Dawkins vs Darwin

  • Sartre vs Marcel

Endorsements S.G. Post (Oxford U Press 2007)

  • Dr. Tim Johnson, Medical Editor, ABC News: “As someone who has long believed that giving is essential to good health….I would suggest reading this book before ever dismissing the idea that giving is good medicine.”

See all lives as gifts calling us to gratitude and celebration

Use our creativity for uplifting purposes

Lend a helping hand to others, and pass the torch

Be loyal even to those who are banged up a bit

Forgive and make apologies meaningful

Awareness of suffering and a desire to relieve it

Have courage to confront evil with love, not malice

Smile in humor and mirthful joy that frees from anxiety

Listen attentively so that others might feel significant

Have respect and reverence so as not to manipulate others

Examples of the ways of love
Examples of the Ways of Love celebration

  • Celebration – Dr. Frat

  • Mirth & Humor – Bob Hope

  • Compassion – Dame Cicely Saunders

  • Attentive Listening – Dan Gottleib

  • Creativity – Sister Leola McNair

  • Generativity – Jean Vanier

More examples ways
More Examples & Ways celebration

  • Forgiveness - The Amish, Aaron Lazare, MD, On Apology (2005)

  • Carefrontation – M. Scott Peck, MD

  • Respect – Mr. Fred Rogers

  • Tom Smith – loyalty (“Don’t ever throw away a whole life just because it’s a little banged up” Seabiscuit)

Attitude of gratitude
Attitude of Gratitude celebration

  • Sir John – Thanks for that fax!