01.11.2005

Give and Ye Shall Receive - by Dr Peter Dingle

DrPeter Dingle explores the gratitude-greed continuum- and finds doing good pays off handsomely in healthand happiness.

What is 'gratitude'? Perhaps we cancomprehend it more easily through a gratitude and greedspectrum. We can visualise this quite easily - completeand utter gratefulness is at one end - total self interestand greed at the other. Gratitude is an attitude toliving, and can have an immeasurable effect on our experienceof every day, every hour of our day, and even everyminute of our day.

Buddhist monks who have learned toderive their happiness from within, rather than frommaterial benefits, are a living example of gratitude.Closer to home is the attitude of my friend Leo. Leowas in a motorcycle accident and lost one of his legs.His other leg was crippled and causes him ongoing discomfort.Despite this, he is glad to be alive and glad to stillbe able to get around, work and be active. Recently,he went snow skiing with a group of severely physicallyimpaired men. His handicap was one of the least. Thenighttime conversation revolved around how lucky theywere to be able to go skiing. All these men focus onwhat they still have.

Another true story about a resilientamputee comes to mind here. Carl, whom I know throughmy friend Evelyn, lost his leg below the knee. Thiswas back in the '70s and at the time Carl had a woodenleg. He and Evelyn were going hiking when Carl noticedthe ankle joint of his prosthesis had come loose. Hewas unable to fix it so he asked to be driven to a hardwarestore. Here he requested a hammer and a handful of nails.The proprietor brought them over and Carl promptly puthis leg up on a chair and started hammering nails throughhis sock into the offending ankle. The proprietor faintedclean away! Carl still dines out on that story.

Focus on what you have; on the factthat you have a roof over your head, you can eat healthyfoods, you do have a job or even if you don't, thatyou are capable of getting a job. Learn to appreciateyour friends, family and the environment around you.Appreciate the little things you are able to do everyday, simply because you can do them. Rather than focusingon a sore ankle or leg when you go for a walk, or thefact that it's overcast or even raining, appreciatethat you can still go for a walk. Gratitude is the appreciationof the simple things in life that we usually take forgranted.

We have the tendency to focus on deficienciesin other people. Usually, it's our family or closestfriend who often goes out of their way to help us. Instead,we zero in on the one small aspect that didn't workwell, blow it out of proportion and blame them for notcaring. Focus on what they do for you, not what theydon't do. We can learn to be grateful.

At the other end of the spectrum liesdissatisfaction with what we do have and avarice formore and more. We always want more things. Consumerismencourages us to focus on what we don't have ratherthan what we do have. As a result, we end up with amental handicap worse than any physical one. The primeexample of this is the totally materialistic personwho believes pleasure and happiness can only be derivedfrom money, status and possessions. The research showsthat such a belief is ill founded and that in many casesthe very opposite is true. A focus on material wealthis associated with compulsive spending, envy, low selfesteem and lack of generosity. Individuals whose primaryfocus is affluence and materialism are less satisfiedwith their life as a whole, tend to experience a highdegree of anxiety and depression, have a lower senseof wellbeing and greater behavioural and physical problems.Some studies have shown that adolescents who value materialwealth highly have greater susceptibility to psychologicaldisorders.

The happiness we all seek can onlybe achieved through self control, not material possessions.Current research into the neurological markers of happinesssupports this view. Of all people studied, Buddhistmonks scored most highly in the 'happy markers' andseem the happiest and most content. The left prefrontalcortex shows greater stimulation in people with a positive,happy outlook. And in these happy people, activity inthe amygdala is inhibited.

The opposite was shown for unhappypeople. They have increased activity of the amygdalaand greater stimulation of the right prefrontal cortex.Furthermore, those with greater activity in the rightprefrontal cortex were more likely to experience emotionsof distress when shown a negative situation. Adultswith increased right side prefrontal cortex activitywere also more likely to report distressing emotionsafter watching films, compared to people with left sidedactivity. It may sound obvious and clichŽd, butyour perception of the world is coloured by what's insideof you.

Money is only a tool to help achievecertain ends. We are conditioned to value it for itself,and we can easily create an economic prison for ourselves,where we think we need more and more, and fear not havingenough. Despite our increased wealth, the divorce ratehas doubled, teen suicide has tripled, reported violencealmost quadrupled and depression rates have dramaticallyincreased, particularly among teens and young adults.Yet our economic and political masters continue to tellus to work harder and buy more to keep the economy going.

Material possessions come and go.In January 2005, I read all about John Elliot, the ex-millionaire,who has rubbed shoulders with the Queen and all thehighest dignitaries in the country, now broke and indebt. The more you have, the more you have to worryabout. You work harder and harder, creating an unbalancedlife, leaving no time to enjoy the things you reallyshould enjoy and all of a sudden, you're at the endof your life and you've missed it. I call this deferredliving. Wants beget wants. I want therefore I am orwill be.

Research has shown that material gaincan only be used for limited motivation. It soon wearsthin and has to be continually increased to maintainresults. If removed it may become a significant demotivator.In one experiment they gave children a reward everytime they engaged in a preferred activity. The children'sinterest in these activities quickly diminished whenthey became associated with rewards. Similarly, adultsworking on puzzles were rewarded each time they completedthem. However, their interest in the activity also diminished.

Modern culture places huge emphasison material success. But this is nothing new - historyis replete with stories of greed as well as those sayingget your priorities right first. Despite the abuse ofhis name, Epicurus, a Greek philosopher living around300BC, encouraged people to enjoy the simple thingsin life, particularly friends and friendships. He alsotaught the value of simple foods, from where we havederived the word 'Epicurean'. Epicurus had a large following- whole villages followed his philosophy of 'simplicityis better'. The Epicureans believed that self indulgentpleasures lead to pain in the long run. Science is nowsupporting this belief. Socrates believed that happinesswas achieved through living a life that nurtures thesoul and not through external achievement, wealth orstatus. Even more recently Einstein said, "I thinkthat a simple and unassuming manner of life is bestfor everyone, best for both body and mind".

This is not to say you have to forgoall material possessions, rather that you need a balance.Most importantly, appreciate the things you alreadyhave, particularly those that don't cost money, suchas clean air and water and access to beautiful beachesand countryside. These simple things really bring themost pleasure and happiness. Imagine not having them.Then you can learn to appreciate them.

When you make a conscious effort tomove towards the gratitude end of the scale, you'llnotice that you feel better. When you really start toexperience gratitude you also begin realise the importanceof giving, without any need or expectation to receivesomething in return. Many religious texts, includingthe Bible, expound the necessity of giving freely andunconditionally. Research shows that serotonin levels(known as the 'feel good' chemical) increase and yourimmune system is stimulated when you perform an actof kindness or giving. You get the same effects if youobserve an act of kindness or giving. That is why peoplewho give get pleasure, or as the Bible says, "giveand ye shall receive". The opposite is also true,greed and continually taking leads to increased dissatisfaction,disharmony and poor health. Physiologically, it lowersserotonin and a compromises your immune system.

Other research has also shown thatgratitude and kindness increase your wellbeing and lifeexpectancy. Altruism reduces our focus on ourselvesand appears to serve as a distraction from worries,whereas preoccupation with ourselves leads to anxietyand depression by increasing our concentration on ourproblems. Researcher George Vaillants followed Harvardgraduates for 40 years, and found altruism to be onethe major qualities enabling graduates to cope withthe stress of life. It also helps us live longer. Astudy of 2,700 American males who volunteered theirservices to community organisations were found to havemuch better longevity than those who didn't volunteer.They were two and a half times less likely to die fromany cause as compared to the control group. Helpingothers also seems to result in a boosted immune system,fewer colds and headaches and better sleeping habits.

Valiants' research also shows thatour priorities change as we age and pass through variousgrowth cycles. Our focus becomes less about ourselvesand more and more about others, our community and theenvironment. As we evolve, we're prepared to be moregenerous. (Though there are some individuals who getcaught up in the "me" cycle and never growout of it). Our sense of happiness seems to go handin hand with this development, despite the fact thatwe experience more health problems and more bereavementsas we age. We are more satisfied with what we have andour need to acquire more and more is reduced.

Even the guru of motivational, moneymaking books, Napoleon Hill, changed his tune as heaged and sorted out his priorities. His book, Thinkand Grow Rich emphasised the power of positive thinkingto make more money. However, much later in his life,he wrote Think and Grow Rich With Peace of Mind, emphasisingvalues which money cannot buy and freedom from the feelingof want.

Your life is precious and the bestthings in it don't cost anything. I know this from myown recent experiences. My best friend recently passedaway. During her illness and her final days, all I wantedwas to spend more precious time with her. Money andmaterial possessions became totally irrelevant. I justwanted to enjoy the simple things of life with her,seeing her smile, a walk together, a talk.

Dr Peter Dingle is an Associate Professor of Healthand the Environment in the School of Environmental Scienceat Murdoch University, Perth.

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