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The Medicine of Love

Stephen Post


Share This article - Is unselfish love good for your health? According to a bioethicist who decided to take love into the lab, giving protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. Learn more about this fascinating research in this excerpt from Why Good Things Happen to Good People.

If I could take one word with me into eternity, it would be "give."

For the past eighteen years I've taught medical ethics at Case Western University Medical School, and since 2001 I've run a research institute dedicated to exploring the extraordinary power of giving. We've funded over fifty studies at forty-four major universities.

I have one simple message to offer and it's this: giving is the most potent force on the planet. Giving is the one kind of love you can count on, because you can always choose it: it's always within your power to give. Giving will protect you your whole life long.

Most of us can recall with radiant clarity those moments when giving was receiving, when another's happiness was our own. After fifty-five years on this earth, I, like you, hold those moments as my most precious. But I also know about the power of giving because, as head of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL), I've funded studies and seen scientific proof. Pioneering scientists across many disciplines are pursuing a whole new topography of research focused on the traits and qualities that create happiness, health, contentment, and lasting success in life. These scientists are discovering the deep, remarkable impact of benevolent behavior on mental and physical health. Personally, I am now convinced that giving is the answer to the malaise that corrodes many lives today, a malaise born of too much "bowling alone," as the sociologist Robert Putnam describes our fragmented lives.

You wish to be happy? Loved? Safe? Secure? You want to turn to others in tough times and count on them? You want the warmth of true connection? You'd like to walk into the world each day knowing that this is a place of benevolence and hope? Then I have one answer: give. Give daily, in small ways, and you will be happier. Give and you will be healthier. Give, and you will even live longer.

Generous behavior shines a protective light over the entire life span. The startling findings from our many studies demonstrate that if you engage in helping activities as a teen, you will still be reaping health benefits sixty or seventy years later. And no matter when you adopt a giving lifestyle, your well-being will improve, even late in life. Generous behavior is closely associated with reduced risk of illness and mortality and lower rates of depression. Even more remarkable, giving is linked to traits that undergird a successful life, such as social competence, empathy, and positive emotion. By learning to give, you become more effective at living itself.

As psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger wrote, "Love cures--both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it." This book will show you why giving is scientifically sound advice, and by the time you're finished reading these pages, you'll have many tools for embarking on a healthier, more giving lifestyle yourself.

Romance of a Different Kind

This book has one purpose: to inspire you to a healthier, more giving lifestyle. It offers:

  • The latest scientific findings connecting generous behavior and happiness, health and longevity, as well as a look toward future science
  • A practical roadmap detailing the distinctly different ways of giving available to all of us every day that will allow you to think about daily giving concretely, chapter by chapter
  • Stories of giving, for what is life but a tapestry of stories? We are meaning-making creatures, and stories inspire us
  • A new and unique Love and Longevity Scale, developed by top scientists, with which you can self-rate your own strengths and gifts
  • Simple, practical suggestions and exercises to help you shift easily and gradually to a life of greater giving

You'll notice, as you read this book, that when I speak of giving and love, I rarely mention romantic infatuation. What of the face that launched a thousand ships? The rose that, by any other name, would smell as sweet? The troubadours, music, poetry, art, and wars waged because of love?

Romantic attraction is a pleasure-driven passion that carries its own unique brain chemistry, marked by fevered highs and, at times, wrenching lows. When we "fall" in love, infatuation propels us to ride a tidal wave of overwhelmingly positive feelings, so that we see our beloved as perfection incarnate. This early bliss helps propagate the species--but it tends to be fleeting. Though falling in love is an experience we all cherish, it is not the kind of love that does the heavy lifting in life. Staying in love requires the many expressions of generous behavior that are the core of this book. I have been married for twenty-five years. It's fair to say that my marriage began with romantic infatuation. Friendship emerged because it had to. After the birth of our daughter, cooperation and tolerance became essential; in fact, the transition to parenthood was one of the most maturing events of my life. But even the new, cooperative friendship that developed as we became parents would not have been enough to hold us together over the decades. A deeper kind of love emerged, one grounded in compassion, hope, forgiveness, loyalty, tolerance, respect.

In every marriage that begins with the dizzying highs of romance, it is the deeper, quieter ways of love that ultimately sustain it. The Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, who has followed the lives of Harvard graduates for half a century, gives the example of a judge who met his wife in high school. At age sixty-five, he reported that his love was "much deeper than at the beginning." At age seventy-seven, he said, "As life gets shorter, I love Cecily even more." This book is about that kind of love. And it is giving that renews and sustains love over time.

How Did a Bioethicist End Up Running an Institute on Love?

One evening in the year 2000, at Duke University, a philanthropist named Sir John Templeton sat with me over a friendly cup of tea and suggested that I start an institute to study love, and love alone. Sir John is legendary in the investing world for creating one of the most successful mutual funds of the last century. His specialty was to identify emerging markets so that stimulating business could benefit the local economy. Knighted in 1987 for his achievements, Sir John retired to the Bahamas and began a unique kind of philanthropy. His foundation gives away $60 million a year for both spiritual and scientific endeavors and achievement. His annual Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities offers about $1.5 million a year and has been awarded to everybody from Mother Teresa to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the physicist Paul Davies.

I was a bit floored by Sir John's suggestion. When I came to Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1988, I chose to focus on the needs of Alzheimer's sufferers and their families. I was drawn to these people I call the "deeply forgetful" because I had seen my own grandmother die of Alzheimer's. I knew that even in the haze of dementia, she could still give and receive love--in fact, it was the only language left to her. These patients revealed to me the simple truth that love is our core. I learned a lot about giving from the deeply forgetful and their families as I traveled around the country holding focus groups. Sir John knew this, and he himself had long been captivated by the idea of unselfish love.

A few months after we'd shared tea, Sir John wrote me to continue the conversation; he asked that I establish a first-class scientific institute to study the impact of love and giving on our lives. Soon after, I sat down with the dean of Case Medical School, Nathan A. Berger, to discuss it. "Nate," I said, "public health is about more than the flu and lead paint and obesity. It's also about benevolence and generosity and hope. Love is actually powerful medicine. We all know that--Harry Harlow told us that half a century ago--but we don't study it enough."

In 1951 the psychologist Harry Harlow had offered an extraordinary presidential address to the American Psychological Association. Harlow was one of the first scientists to bring love into the lab. His controversial studies of baby monkeys clinging to cloth-and-wire "moms" are unforgettable--they showed us how deep and hardwired the need for affection and warmth is. "Love," Harlow said, "is a wondrous state, deep, tender and regarding . . . [and yet] psychologists tend to give progressively less attention to a motive which pervades our entire lives." He challenged the entire audience of his peers, asking why we study hatred, violence, fear, pornography, but not positive emotions.

Nate got my point. Visionaries like Nate Berger and Sir John Templeton are rare. And so, in 2001, with a generous start-up grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love was founded as an independent entity located at Case Medical School.

Many colleagues of mine, even good friends, have been amused by the name of the Institute. When you accept a challenge like Sir John's, you've got to shore up a lot of nerve to push it forward. And so I embrace the skepticism I encounter. It's one of the delightful challenges of this kind of work, and increasingly, people have come to take the Institute seriously.

When people ask me what the Institute does, I have three answers. The first: we fund pioneering, high-level, empirical research on unselfish love in every aspect from human development and genetics to positive psychology and sociology. The second: Remember what Mr. Rogers said after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? He was asked on television what parents should tell their children about the terrorist attacks and his simple answer was: "Keep your eye on the helpers." That is what this institute does: it keeps an eye on the helpers, literally studying their good hearts, good works, and good lives, and distills lessons for the rest of us to live by. And the third answer? In the giving of self lies the unsought discovery of self. In other words, when we give, we find our true selves. At the Institute, we aid that discovery as we can.

Though we are all flawed in a thousand ways, giving can guide our lives. The philosopher Ruth Groenhout of Calvin College recently asked me, "What would it take to generate a true revolution in scientific and evolutionary thinking so that love could be acknowledged openly and unabashedly?"

How about scientific proof for starters? The evidence is mounting, and as you will discover in this book, it is hard not to be swayed by the new research. Let's replace cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am") with the far more benevolent notion, "I love, therefore I am." Love is not so much taught as transmitted, from good neighbors to parents, children, strangers, and saints. What message could be more important?

Consider the story of Katherine Meyers. In the winter of 1996 she met a homeless man named Marvin on the streets of Chicago, and he told her:

"Don't call me homeless. I have a home and it's in my heart." Meyers had just dropped money in Marvin's cup on her morning walk down Michigan Avenue, often called the "Magnificent Mile" because of its imposing stores and architectural splendor. "As I passed him I felt as if my feet weighed two hundred pounds," she recalls. "I couldn't keep walking. I was being pulled back." She turned around and introduced herself. Marvin was born blind, and yet he walked without a cane. "You have eyes in your feet and hands," Meyers said, and he reached for her hand and put it on his heart. "And your heart," she added. She sat down and they began to talk. Soon she put her arms around him, and as she did so she noticed that people walking by them were turning away. Meyers says, "They were missing out on this man's wisdom. He sat there without judgment or bitterness." She has been working with the homeless ever since. "I've learned that an outstretched hand doesn't always mean, 'Put money here.' Sometimes it means, 'Take my hand. See me in my humanity. Acknowledge me.' "

Giving is a great equalizer. Whatever your background--privileged or impoverished, blessed or difficult--the starting place for a life of greater love is within your reach. I think of the life of Susie Valdez, nicknamed the "Queen of the Dumps." Valdez was born in the slums of Mexico, dropped out of school in the tenth grade, and had four babies in quick succession. Packing just a few possessions, she moved with her children to El Paso, Texas, and spent the next forty years caring for dirt-poor Mexicans. Valdez founded a mission, raised funds for two medical centers, mobilized prominent politicians, subsidized schools, and fed as many as three thousand poor people a day. Many who have met her marvel at her charismatic radiance in the face of so much suffering.

Give love, and you'll discover life in all its force, vitality, joy, and buoyancy. In generosity lies healing and health.

The New Science of Love and Health

The remarkable bottom line of the science of love is that giving protects overall health twice as much as aspirin protects against heart disease. If giving weren't free, pharmaceutical companies could herald the discovery of a stupendous new drug called "Give Back"--instead of "Prozac"--and run TV ads about love. The findings of the Institute build on the work of pioneers who have come before me--from great philosophers of love like Pitirim Sorokin to pathbreaking psychologists of happiness like Martin Seligman, the former head of the American Psychological Association and author of Learned Optimism.

The study of love leaves no person or field of science untouched. For those of us sharing the unfolding of this new field, it is an inspiring time. We are seeing the scientific confirmation of lifelong intuitions. The new research encompasses everybody from Afro-American teenagers to middle-aged Vietnam veterans to churchgoers, atheists, and the elderly. It draws on the insights of scientists from diverse fields--psychology, evolutionary biology, cross-cultural anthropology, gerontology, epidemiology, public health, religion, and human development. Some researchers are even trying to bring love into the doctor's office, asking physicians to prescribe generous behavior. Adam Hirschfelder is one such pioneer: he heads a new program, called Rx: Volunteer, in which patients recruited from the Medicare practice of a large HMO in California receive a volunteerism "prescription" from their physicians.

Giving protects the giver at all ages and stages of life. They say only the good die young. Of course, sometimes the good do die young, and we all eventually face sickness from causes that are completely beyond our control or responsibility. But the remarkably good news is that, over the past ten years, we have about five hundred serious scientific studies that demonstrate the power of unselfish love to enhance health, and our new IRUL-funded studies render the picture even more vivid.

Excerpted from Why Good Things Happen to Good People by Stephen Post, Ph.D. and Jill Neimark Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Post, Ph.D. and Jill Neimark. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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