How to Immediately Improve Your Life (Hint: It Starts With Improving the Lives of Others)

Last week a few HuffPost editors and I were treated to a visit by Bill Drayton and Mary Gordon. Bill Drayton is the founder of Ashoka and a longtime champion of social entrepreneurship, a term that he coined and that has now spread across the world. Mary Gordon is a former kindergarten teacher who founded Roots of Empathy, an organization dedicated to teaching emotional literacy and promoting empathy in children. She was also one of the first Ashoka fellows. Our visit started with talk of the newborn recently welcomed by one of our editors, Gregory Beyer, whereupon Mary presented him with a onesie with "Empathy Teacher" emblazoned on the front. But as Mary -- a great empathy teacher herself -- told us, it's a two-way street, and empathy is best nurtured by example. "Love grows brains," she told us. "We need to show children a picture of love as we raise them."

And giving not only nurtures empathy; it's an outgrowth of our innate capacity for empathy. It's also one of the key components of HuffPost's Third Metric initiative to redefine success beyond the first two metrics of money and power to include well-being, wisdom, and our ability to wonder and to give -- all of which are boosted when we give our time and effort to something other than ourselves.

Philosophers have known this for centuries. "No one can live happily who has regard for himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility," wrote the first-century Stoic philosopher Seneca in his Moral Letters to Lucilius. And in practically every religious tradition and practice, giving of oneself is a key step on the path to spiritual fulfillment. Or, as Einstein put it, "only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."

Since Einstein, scientists have been trying to come up with the "theory of everything," which would explain our entire physical world by reconciling general relativity with quantum physics. In the study of our emotional world, there's no analogous theory of everything, but if there were, empathy and giving would be at the center of it. And modern science has overwhelmingly confirmed the wisdom of those early philosophers and religious traditions. Empathy, compassion, and giving -- which is simply empathy and compassion in action -- are the building blocks of our being. With them we flourish; without them we perish.

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathan Haidt writes that "caring for others is often more beneficial than receiving help. We need to interact and intertwine with others; we need the give and take; we need to belong."

Science has broken down why this is. A crucial component, a molecule of compassion, is a hormone called "oxytocin," also known as the "love hormone," the "love drug," and the "moral molecule." And not without reason. It's released naturally in our bodies during experiences like childbirth, falling in love, and sex. Higher levels of oxytocin are associated with heightened desire and ability to connect socially. Lower levels are associated with conditions like depression and autism.

Researchers have found that giving people oxytocin can lower their anxiety and mitigate shyness. A study by neuroscientist Paul Zak showed that a squirt of oxytocin to the nose increased the amount of money participants offered each other in an experiment. "The seven deadly sins are still deadly, because they separate us from other people," said Zak. "They are all about putting 'me' first and that is maladaptive for social creatures like us."

The hormone should not be confused with oxycontin, a highly addictive opiate-based painkiller that has caused thousands of overdose deaths. Oxytocin, the "love hormone," is in a constant battle with cortisol, the "stress hormone." Of course, we'll never completely eliminate stress from our lives, but nurturing our empathy and giving is a sure way to reduce our stress.

But for the greatest positive effect, it's not just about empathy; it's about the right kind of empathy. In trying to understand our leaders' "weirdly detached" reaction to Hurricane Katrina, Daniel Goleman, a journalist and the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence, describes psychologist Paul Ekman's breakdown of the three kinds of empathy. First, there's "cognitive empathy," which is knowing how someone else feels or what they're thinking. But simply understanding another's position doesn't mean we've internalized what they're feeling. So there's also "emotional empathy," in which we actually feel what another person is feeling. This is triggered by so-called "mirror neurons." But given the amount of suffering we're so frequently exposed to, it would be too draining to live in a constant state of emotional empathy. "This can make emotional empathy seem futile," writes Goleman. But there's the third type, which Ekman designates "compassionate empathy," in which we know how a person is feeling, we're feeling their feelings along with them, and we're moved to act. So compassionate empathy is a skill we can nurture, and one that leads to action.

So this is the kind of empathy we're fueled by when we're giving back -- though even the term "giving back" is misleading. It implies that service and volunteering are important only in terms of what they do for the community or the recipient. But just as important is what they do for the giver or volunteer. And the science on this is as unambiguous as it is amazing. Essentially, giving back is a miracle drug (with no side effects) for health and well-being.

Indeed, we're so wired for it that our genes reward us for giving -- and punish us when we don't. Last month Gretchen Reynolds reported on a study by scientists from the University of North Carolina and UCLA that found that participants whose happiness was mostly hedonic (or about consuming) had high levels of biological markers that promote inflammation, which is linked to conditions like diabetes and cancer. Those whose happiness was based on service to others had health profiles showing reduced levels of these markers. Of course, we all experience a mix of both kinds of happiness, but our bodies' internal system is subtly pushing for us to augment the kind based on giving.

Many other studies show the positive health boost provided by giving. A 2013 study by Dr. Suzanne Richards of the University of Exeter Medical School found that volunteering was connected to lower rates of depression, high reports of well-being, and a significant reduction in mortality risk. And a 2005 Stanford study found that those who volunteer live longer than those who don't.

The effects of giving back as we age are especially dramatic:

  • A study from Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin found that seniors who volunteered had significantly lower rates of depression than non-volunteers.
  • A 2011 Johns Hopkins study found that volunteering seniors were more likely to engage in brain-building activities, which lowers the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Regaining a sense of purpose among older people who had suffered the loss of their defining roles as parents or wage earners is another advantage of volunteering.
  • Studies of the effects of giving in the workplace are equally dramatic and show that the way to a more productive business and a healthier, more creative and collaborative workforce is not by continuing our culture's dangerous devotion to burnout and overwork. For instance, a 2013 study by United Health Group found that employee volunteer programs increased engagement and productivity. The same study showed that:

    • Over 75 percent of the employees who had volunteered said they felt healthier.

  • Over 90 percent said their volunteering had put them in a better mood.
  • Over 75 percent reported experiencing less stress.
  • Ninety-six percent said that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life (which in turn has been found to strengthen our immune function).
  • Employees who volunteered also reported improved time-management skills and enhanced ability to connect with peers.
  • Another 2013 study, this one by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, found that employees who give back are more likely to assist their colleagues, more committed to their work and less likely to quit. "Our findings make a simple but profound point about altruism: helping others makes us happier," says Donald Moynihan, one of the study's authors. "Altruism is not a form of martyrdom, but operates for many as part of a healthy psychological reward system."

    And one that should also be incorporated into how we think about health care. "[I]f you want to live a longer, happier, and healthier life, take all the usual precautions that your doctor recommends," says Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan, "and then... get out there and share your time with those who need it. That's the caring cure."

    So given the unmistakable health benefits of empathy and specifically putting empathy into action, how do we strengthen it? And how do we pass it on? Parents put a lot of time into thinking about how to pass on a better material life to their children, but it's just as important to focus on passing down a rich capacity for compassion. This is especially true in our modern world, in which our deep, hard-wired need to connect with others is beset on all sides by distractions and technology and the lure of ersatz connections.

    One 2010 San Diego State University study found a five-fold increase in depression among children since the Great Depression. Another, commissioned by the American Psychological Association, found that millennials were the most stressed demographic in the country last year.

    However, the news is not all bleak. John Bridgeland, a leader of the national service movement, believes millennials could "rescue the civic health of our nation after decades of decline." Recent studies corroborate his sentiments. A 2009 report by the National Conference on Citizenship shows that millennials "lead the way in volunteering," with 43 percent engaging in service. According to a Harvard Institute of Politics study, the numbers are even higher for college students, with 53 percent saying they had volunteered in the past year, over 40 percent of whom volunteer multiple times per month.

    So what can parents do to enhance their children's sense of empathy? Health journalist Maia Szalavitz and child psychiatrist Bruce Perry are the authors of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential -- and Endangered. According to the authors, parents can nurture empathy the same way they help their children start talking. "[E]mpathy is a natural human quality like language -- one that relies on specific early experiences to develop properly," they write. "When these experiences of nurture and human contact are present for children, families, cultures and economies tend to flourish."

    Back in the HuffPost office, during our empathy teach-in, Mary Gordon echoed this point. "We need to show children a picture of love as we raise them," she said. "Learning is relational, and empathy is constructed, not instructed." So it's not enough to tell your children about empathy or to think of how someone else feels. We have to show them. Which means, of course, that we have to do it ourselves. "The baby reflects the emotional state of the parents," Mary told us. And this makes the positive emotional effects of putting our empathy into action all the more essential.

    At one point, one of our editors asked whether the effects of a childhood not rich in empathy could be reversed. Yes, Mary replied, it's never too late. So the good news is that we can transcend our childhoods, and that any entry point of giving and service can lead to benefits for our well-being -- and of course, our community.

    That's good to hear since, as Bill Drayton emphasized to us, empathy is increasingly becoming our primary resource for dealing with the exponential rate of change the world is going through. "The speed at which the future comes upon us -- faster and faster -- the kaleidoscope of constantly changing contexts," he told us, "requires the foundational skill of cognitive empathy."

    And the best way to build that internal foundational skill is to reach outward. And compassion and giving don't have to include getting on a plane to build houses or teach school in a remote part of the world. It may simply involve helping people across town. And it doesn't just involve giving money. As Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen put it in her book Giving 2.0, it may involve helping "business professionals donate skills in areas such as strategic planning, management, human resources, marketing, design, or IT to nonprofits in need of those skills," as the Taproot Foundation does.

    Technology has made it possible to be in a self-contained, disconnected bubble 24 hours a day, even while walking down the street. Our devices might seem like they're connecting us, but they're really disconnecting us from other people, without whom it's hard to activate our hard-wired need for empathy.