In 2008, author Lawrence Scanlan decided to volunteer with 12 charitable organizations, dedicating a month to each one. The purpose was to look outside the worldwide "charity Olympics" - that is, outside the sphere of billionaire philanthropy - and pitch in on the front lines.
This passage is drawn from the end of the month (and chapter) September, which he spent at Ongwanada Resource Centre in Kingston, Ont., a place that offers day programs to profoundly challenged adults. At the end of that chapter, he discusses the subject of human generosity.
There is mounting evidence from science that good deeds are at least good medicine. "Helper's high" is much like the endorphin high that long-distance runners experience and that we all feel when we do something nice for someone else.
I felt it after buying those kitchen items for Vinnie's [St. Vincent de Paul drop-in centre in Kingston] and after the fundraisers for Robert Lovelace [a uranium-mine protester]and Horizons of Friendship [helping eliminate poverty in Mesoamerica]
This rush can boost the immune system, speed up recovery from surgery and reduce insomnia. Using brain scans, scientists have discovered that we are programmed to help each other: compassion registers in the brain's pleasure zones.
In their book, The Healing Power of Doing Good (2001), authors Allan Luks and Peggy Payne define helper's high as exhilaration coupled with a burst of energy followed by a period of calm and serenity. For the book, Luks studied more than three thousand Americans involved in volunteering and found that subjects reported a buzz that lasted several weeks. After that, simply recalling the act of helping others brought back that sense of euphoria.
Generosity appears to be good for both body and soul. Ninety per cent of those whom Luks studied reported that volunteering helped counter stress and chronic pain while lowering blood pressure and cholesterol counts.
In another study, at Harvard University, researchers showed 132 students a film about Mother Teresa's work among Calcutta's poor, then measured the levels in their saliva of immunoglobulin A, the body's first defence against the common cold virus. Simply witnessing kindness jacked up their levels.
Sometimes philanthropy has the same feel as extreme sport. Zell Kravinsky, for example, is an American math whiz and English professor in Philadelphia who amassed a $45-million real-estate fortune expressly to give it away to charities involved in public health. Then, in 2003, he donated one of his kidneys to an African-American woman who was taking the bus every other day for dialysis treatments.
"I used to feel," Kravinsky says, "that I had to be good, truly good in my heart and spirit, in order to do good. But it's the other way around: If you do good, you become better. With each thing I've given away, I've been more certain of the need to give more away. And at the end of it, maybe I will be good."
Jenny Oad, a Toronto writer in her 30s, likewise donated one of her kidneys to a complete stranger. She told a Globe and Mail reporter about having to explain to a psychiatric nurse, a psychiatrist and a bioethicist how this donation would benefit her and how Toronto General Hospital could justify risking her life to help a stranger.
The recipient was a 52-two-year-old man named Mike Fogelman, on dialysis and with a long family history of renal failure. Oad called her decision "an impulse to help that I have never second-guessed. ... It felt like the right thing to do."
Toronto playwright Michael Healey donated part of his liver several years ago to another playwright, Tom Walmsley, a man he barely knew. Healey's play Generous (actually four two-act plays about characters intent on doing something for others) ran to warm reviews in 2006."People's motives are always complicated," Healey says. "Altruistic acts are not different from any other act in life. You are doing it based on your own psychology, your view of the world."
From the upcoming book A Year of Living Generously: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Philanthropy, © 2010, by Lawrence Scanlan. Published in May, 2010, by Douglas & McIntyre: an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.