PART II …AND RE­SOLVES TO DO GOOD “THE SCIENCE IS CLEAR: THE GOOD ARE LESS LIKELY TO DIE YOUNG”

Men's Health (UK) - - Are You Really A Good Person? -

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

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