After hearing Matthieu Ricard speak last week, I’ve been thinking about the themes of altruism and compassion. He said that he wrote his newest book, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, because we need, moment to moment, a common concept to work toward if we are to build a better world. Could the practice of altruism enrich our personal and professional relationships? The thought alone is enough to drive change.
It turns out that neuroscientists have studied altruism in adults and discovered that the act of giving to others brings about physiological changes that leave the giver with a deeper sense of wellbeing. A recent study found that young children are also affected positively when they give to others.
In this particular study, researchers found that toddlers (around 4 years of age) from middle-income households were more altruistic than those from high-income families. When asked to donate the prizes they had earned to less fortunate children, toddlers who were more generous experienced positive physiological changes in their bodies.
Specifically, scientists measured an increased tone of the vagus nerve (which connects the brain with other organs), which in turn seemed to calm the children’s nervous systems. Jonas Miller, head researcher, remarked that high vagal tone is associated with feeling safe and correlates with better health, behavior, and social skills in young children. Miller said, “It means we might be wired from a young age to derive a sense of safety from providing for others.”
I think it’s remarkable that giving to others could actually improve our health and overall sense of happiness. It’s yet another way that our bodies are miraculous. This inspires me even more to instill the values of compassion and heartfelt giving in my own children. Who would have thought we could learn so much from our young?