PART II …AND RESOLVES TO DO GOOD “THE SCIENCE IS CLEAR: THE GOOD ARE LESS LIKELY TO DIE YOUNG”
Why even aspire to be good? Surely it’s better to laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints? And doesn’t evolution teach us this principle – the self-preservation instinct, the selfish gene? We’re born to be selfish! I start googling, hoping to confirm this, but it looks like I’m in for a polite awakening.
While there is no selfish gene, there seem to be genes that promote altruism – acts intended to help others for no personal gain, even at a cost to oneself. These are the kinds of actions that fascinate Abigail Marsh, an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Marsh was among the first researchers to analyse how differences in the brain affect altruistic behaviour – particularly extreme selfsacrifice, such as anonymously donating organs to strangers.
“What I found is that the characteristics of a specific part of the brain, the amygdala, correspond to individual differences in altruism,” says Marsh. The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons that, among other things, is involved in decision-making, emotional responses and memory. The super-altruists have a larger amygdala than the rest of us (as much as 8% bigger). Psychopaths, on the other hand, tend to have a smaller amygdala. I wonder how large mine is.
This seems like great news, confirming my long-held belief that nothing I do is ultimately my fault. But then Marsh tells me genetics accounts for only half of altruistic or “pro-social” behaviour. Our experiences inform the rest, and most of us begin with a strong capacity for selflessness. “We’ve evolved to rely less on physicality and more on social abilities,” says Marsh. As a relatively weak, slow-moving species, we need each other to survive. This is why children often instinctively try to help strangers, even when there’s no expectation of reward.
OK, fine. Maybe we aren’t born selfish. But selfishness works in the long run, right? Wrong again. According to Marsh, evidence abounds for how helping others improves our mental and physical wellbeing. Researchers at Washington University found that tutoring children can boost your memory, mental flexibility and even stamina, while reducing levels of anxiety. Similarly, a study in Social Science & Medicine reported that people who volunteer spend 38% fewer nights in hospital than those who don’t. And if that doesn’t persuade you to donate your time, consider this: performing unpaid community service lowers your mortality risk by 24%, according to research published in Psychology and Aging. The good don’t die young – or, at least, they’re less likely to.
Lying in bed that night, I wonder: what if I’m not good? “I’m going to die young,” I whisper. My wife smiles. “I’m serious,” I tell her. “I’m not community-minded at all. And I hate people.”
“You’ll be fine,” she replies from the far side of the mattress. Then she laughs, not very kindly, and falls sleep.
AS A SPECIES, WE RELY ON EACH OTHER TO SURVIVE