[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Many recent scientific studies have shown a positive correlation between helping other people and greater psychological well-being. I was recently pointed to yet another study that suggests this link. We seem to be accumulating more and more scientific evidence that, in the words of one of this study’s authors, “When we help others we can also help ourselves.” What A Course in Miracles calls “the law of love”- “What I give my brother is my gift to me” (W-pII.344.Heading)—seems more and more to be a genuine law that we can actually demonstrate in our daily lives.
This latest research was carried out by Emily Ansell, Holly B. Laws, and Elizabeth B. Raposa (all from the Yale University School of Medicine) and published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Laboratory studies have long shown that helping others can reduce a person’s stress level, and these researchers wanted to see if this holds true in everyday life outside the lab as well. So, they had 77 adults report daily on three aspects of their lives over a 14-day period: 1) the number of stressful events they experienced during the day (interpersonal, work, financial, and health problems, among others), 2) the number of helping behaviors they engaged in during the day (helping someone with schoolwork, asking someone if he or she needs help, etc.), and 3) their overall mood that day (measured in part by a well-established diagnostic tool called the Positive and Negative Affect Scale).
The researchers discovered that there was a positive correlation between #2 and #3 in the list above: In other words, when participants were more helpful to other people in the course of a day, their emotional state was also more positive that day. There was also a correlation between #2 and #1 above: When participants helped others less than usual, they also had a more negative emotional response to stressful events, but when they helped others more than usual, they also had a more positive emotional response to those stressful events. This pattern was consistent and strong regardless of the source or intensity of the stress. As Ansell says, “It was surprising how strong and uniform the effects were across daily experiences.”
Of course, correlation does not imply causation, so we don’t know with certainty what is happening here. Does helping people lead to a better mood, or does being in a better mood to begin with lead to helping people more? Perhaps both options are true in part, and perhaps there are other hidden variables in play. Therefore, we have to be cautious in drawing firm conclusions. Yet given the many other studies showing the benefits of helping others, it seems likely that at least part of what is happening here is what so many of us have concluded from our own life experience: helping others makes us happier. Certainly the authors of this study think so; as Ansell says, “Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.”
A Course in Miracles is clear that helping others does make us happy. This, in its view, is a natural result of the above-mentioned law of love: “What I give my brother is my gift to me.” Indeed, from the Course’s standpoint, this law is the key to everything. Being truly helpful is the only way to be truly happy. Extending miracles of love to others is exactly what this course in miracles is here to teach us. Helping others does far more than just relieve our stress a little; it is nothing less than the way home to God, as these beautiful passages from the Psychotherapy supplement make clear:
A brother seeking aid can bring us gifts beyond the heights perceived in any dream. He offers us salvation, for he comes to us as Christ and Savior. What he asks is asked by God through him. And what we do for him becomes the gift we give to God….This holy interaction is the plan of God Himself, by which His Son is saved. (P-2.V.5:1-4, 8)
Hear a brother call for help and answer him. It will be God to Whom you answer, for you called on Him. There is no other way to hear His Voice. There is no other way to seek His Son. There is no other way to find your Self. Holy is healing, for the Son of God returns to Heaven through its kind embrace. (P-2.V.8:4-9)
Of course, it has become almost a cliché that helping others brings us happiness, so many people may wonder why we even need scientific studies to demonstrate what seems obvious to them. But I for one really appreciate such studies, because however much we may say this idea is obvious, the fact is that most of us do not really live as if it is, at least not consistently. We need real conviction, as the Course itself so often emphasizes, and to have conviction we need evidence from as many different angles as possible. And let’s face it, the evidence given us by science is a powerful source of conviction in today’s world. Of course science is flawed, as is every human endeavor, but at its best the experimental method of science is a powerful way to demonstrate that something we believe to be true really is true.
One way that science shows things to be true is through the repeatability of experiments that demonstrate their truth. We see this with the proposition that helping others makes us happier—so many studies, approaching the issue from many different angles and testing it in many different ways, are showing that helping others really does increase our well-being in all sorts of ways. The effect is strong, consistent, and highly repeatable. For me, this is very powerful.
And interestingly enough, the Course itself, in Workbook Lesson 108, uses this principle of repeatability to convince us of the very law of love we are discussing: “To give and to receive are one in truth” (W-pI.108.Heading). This lesson invites us to perform an experiment in which we mentally send to others various gifts of God (peace, joy, love, etc.) and experience those gifts coming back to us. We are told that one great benefit of practicing “this simple lesson in the obvious” is that “it has results we cannot miss” (W-pI.108.7:2). As we see how consistent and repeatable the results of this experiment are, we will develop a conviction so strong that it will even expand to embrace other Course ideas that we’ve been skeptical about:
To learn that giving and receiving are the same has special usefulness because it can be tried so easily and seen as true. And when this special case has proved it always works, in every circumstance where it is tried, the thought behind it can be generalized to other areas of doubt and double vision. (W-pI.108.6:1-2)
Therefore, I applaud studies like the one I’ve described in this piece. I think we need all the evidence we can get for the radical ideas the Course is trying to teach us. The authors of this study want to do further research into the question of whether encouraging people to actively be more helpful to each other can reduce stress and bring more happiness. They are, in essence, advocating versions of the very experiment that the Course has us perform in so many ways. In my mind, that can only lead to greater happiness for all of us.
And of course, we don’t have to wait for the scientists in order to perform that experiment ourselves. So, are you feeling distressed today? You might try asking the Holy Spirit how you can help others, following His guidance by helping others as He directs, and observing how you feel as a result. This can be your own small contribution to this great experimental endeavor that we are all a part of. You can help increase your own conviction and that of others—and increase everyone’s happiness at the same time. Given the growing evidence for the law of love and the benefits it promises, what can we lose by giving it a try?
Source of material commented on (thanks to Bob Turrou for passing this on): http://tinyurl.com/jqkykjs