Helper Pearls

Natural History Museum Photo

Pearls help a person look well dressed. Think of all of the photographed pearl-wearing First Ladies of the U.S. — and now our first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris, shares her lovely pearls everyday (see United by Pearls, 8-30-21). Go ahead and wear real or faux pearls. The First Ladies wore both kinds! You do not need any selfies to know you look good.

More importantly, let’s also exhibit the pearls of wisdom and generosity. Again, no photos are necessary. As First Lady Barbara Bush advised in her book, Pearls of Wisdom: “In all honesty you really only have two choices: You can like what you do OR you can dislike it. I choose to like it…We can always find people who are worse off, and we don’t have to look far! Help them….” 

It turns out that generous helpers do not just “look good,” but find life-enhancing benefits for themselves. And helping behaviors generally increase after middle-age. Research involving 103 participants (ages 18-99) — who saw a video about a young boy with cancer — experienced mood-enhancing satisfaction when they made donations to a charity. Following the video each person was given an option to donate to the cancer charity listed in the film. Researchers compared oxytocin hormone levels in participants’ blood before and after the poignant film with the optional generosity action. Those releasing the most oxytocin tended to be older and were those most likely to make a donation.

Paul Zak, one of the researchers and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, was enthusiastic: “What was surprising…was the strength of the relationship between doing good acts and releasing more oxytocin. It is so strong in older people; it’s really one of the most ‘wow’ and bullet-proof (results) I’ve seen in 20 years of being in the lab.”  

While oxytocin is associated with reproduction, breast-feeding, and what social psychologist Shelley Taylor (University of California, Los Angeles) calls the tend-and-befriend stress response in women, oxytocin is also present in men and is associated with altruism, charity, generosity, and trust.

Zak discovered in other research that when a person is intentionally trusted, the brain produces oxytocin, even when a stranger is involved. Oxytocin has a positive effect upon relationships, as wariness is reduced, and others’ emotions seem more understandable.

When applied to the workplace, Zak finds that understanding your work team’s purpose and trusting your team members are the two key ingredients for success. The more trust one experiences with others, the more oxytocin is released in the brain. In a fascinating study, when synthetic oxytocin was safely infused into participants, they demonstrated self-sacrifice to help others — even people who were different from them.      

Could Congress participate in this research and receive some synthetic oxytocin?

Pearls of Peace (PoP) Quiz:

139. What do you notice in your bodymind when you tend-and-befriend another person?

140. When might you extend your trust level with someone you do not know well?

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.

5 comments

  1. For me one of the easiest ways to show trust in a person I don’t really know is to give them a smile. It is such a simple thing to do and I often get a smile back. Another thing I like to do is to give a word of thanks and words of appreciation to those working at serving me, ie, grocery clerks, postal workers, strangers that open a door. Everyday we encounter and pass people we do not know. We just need to let them know they are appreciated and valued.

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  2. Let’s appreciate our oxytocin levels every time we make a donation to a good cause or acknowledge a stranger’s helpfulness. Our positive connections with others, even those we do not know personally, are energizing!

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  3. Such an interesting blog! The physical effects of kindness and generosity in the release of oxytocin are truly amazing! Yes, I am for a large experiemental project with key Congressional members known for their negative acts and the injection of synthetic oxytocin! (Just kidding, sort of!) It must work the same way when you visiby work for a good cause such as climate change, immigrant benefits, homelessness, etc. Many of our youth are very energized about these issues which is wonderful to see!

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