Be Happy, Be Healthy … Be Altruistic

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Islamic Medicine
Staff member
Be Happy, Be Healthy … Be Altruistic

By Nora Belfedal

Amr Bil Ma'rouf Wa Nahi Ani Almunkar

"Help ye one another in righteousness and piety, but help ye not one another in sin and rancor (Qur'an, 5:3)." Kindness is a teaching of most of the world's religions - from Buddhism to Judaism and from Christianity to Islam. But in modern times, acts of kindness have been all but forgotten - until the terrible events of September 11th.

"The charitable impulse is universal. It simply needs to be nurtured and activated," said James Joseph, president of the Council on Foundations. The terrorist attacks of September 11 seem to have awakened this altruistic desire in everyone, from the smallest child to the president of the United States.

Since the terrorist attacks a month ago, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon building have been the scene of many unusual demonstrations of solidarity. "Heroism was everywhere as the U.S. dealt with the bloodiest day on its soil since the Civil War," writes Time magazine. Volunteer men and women, fire fighters, and police officers all risked or gave their lives to save others.

Of course, not all reactions seemed heroic to the person struggling just to save their own life. "When the blast shook it went dark and we all went down, and I had a flashlight and everyone was screaming at me. The whole crowd was on top of me wanting the flashlight," tells Robert Falcon, a worker in the parking garage of the towers.

Nonetheless, the desire to help and to do something good was more abundant than not. Doctors call this attitude "altruism" or "philanthropy". Scientific studies show that altruism is not only helpful to society - but helpful to the person performing the good deed as well.

Studies have shown that the Muslim doctrine of "Amr bil ma'rouf wa nahi 'ani almunkar" (ordering good and denouncing or literally "dis-ordering", evil) has significant health benefits in both the physical and psychological realm.

Among the many doctors who have performed studies on philanthropy is Allan Luks. In his study, he concluded that "Helping contributes to the maintenance of good health, and it can diminish the effect of diseases and disorders both serious and minor, psychological and physical." His experiment on more than 3,000 volunteers revealed that after an act of kindness, people first feel a "rush of euphoria" and then a long period of tranquility and well-being. During this stress-reduced period, immune system responses are improved. "This feeling of well-being is critically important" (Luks).

Luks also observed that 95% of his altruistic volunteers had better health status compared to others of the same age. He noted that acts of altruism in 57% cases increased self-esteem and in 53% produced a feeling of happiness and optimism, reducing depression. Further studies by other experts have confirmed his findings.

A Stanford University study demonstrated that rheumatoid arthritis pain could be improved if the patient reduced depression and bad feelings. "Civic connections are predictors of life happiness," writes Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. "Studies show that American society is decreasing in connection with others: family, friends, and neighbors… Social happiness has to be based on altruism and solidarity" (Luks).

Another study, lead by Dr. David McClelland at Harvard University, determined the effects of altruism on the immune system. One of his experiments consisted of showing movies of altruistic acts to his students; he then measured the rate of immunoglobulin A - which helps fight against cold viruses - in the students' saliva. He discovered that the amount of this immunoglobulin increased for those who watched the altruistic movies and even more for those who wanted to do something good after (Luks).

Here is a list of diseases that Luks calls "the ills that helping helps":

· Obesity

· Sleeplessness

· Acid stomach, ulcers

· Headaches and backaches

· Depression

· Colds and flu

· Arthritis

· Lupus

· Asthma

· Faster recovery from surgery

· Cancer

· Coronary artery disease

The desire to act kindly may also be a way to repair a previously committed bad act writes Luks.

Dr. Dean Ornish found that hostility seriously damages the circulatory system saying, "It creates an exaggerated focus on the self that can intensify feelings of isolation and separateness, which, in their turn, invite increased stress and further physical damage." This increased stress can be counterbalanced by acts of kindness.

A recent example of trying to correct a wrong can be illustrated by U.S. President George W. Bush's campaign of sending food to people the U.S. is currently attacking, namely Afghanistan, in order to feel less guilty or so that the America will be perceived as a "good nation".

To further the good benefits of altruism, Putnam developed a theory called "generalized reciprocity" in order help nurture a happier society. His "golden rule" states that, "I'll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road."

But this is difficult to put into action for no one has the certitude that someone else will really do something for him one day. On the other hand, if we change just a bit of this theory it becomes much more practicable: "I'll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you for I know Allah will reward me anyway."

Most philanthropic acts include the idea of being rewarded and "Religion has been a factor in humankind's perception of obligations since the dawn of human history" (Joseph).

Finally, when we look at the precedent set by actual societies, we find that among the happiest of societies was the first Muslim society. Those Muslims were the reflection of Islamic doctrines in the Qur'an and Sunnah; they were helping each other, neither for money, nor for fame but for the sake of Allah.

"A believer is like a brick for another believer, the one supporting the other," said the Prophet Muhammad (saws) (Bukhari)."
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