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Growing up, we were all taught to “be good,” and we have all heard many reasons why it was a good idea. Avoiding a punishment like going to your room, having your allowance taken away or being grounded were on the top of my list. Most religions taught a similar concept, that if you were bad, you would be punished – a “fear of God” sort of thing.
We are also good because we crave feeling safe. We grow up with an emotional need for approval from our elders, and this emotion may have been what has kept our species alive. If kids did not care about getting approval from mom or dad, with no concern for their parent’s watchful eye, we may have wandered into the jungle and been eaten by a lion. Without this need to please and be approved of by our parents, humans may have evolved completely differently.
However, is the need to please, be safe, seek approval, be accepted, be loved, cared for or appreciated the only driver for being good? New science is suggesting that being good is not only something we have to do to avoid a consequence or get approval; it is more connected to our true nature than we ever thought. So, what is our “true-nature?”
In one study, when humans were provided with all of their basic needs like shelter and food, they consistently failed to thrive without loving relationships in their lives. (2) At the same time, a broken heart – the loss of love – can cause serious health concerns, and in some cases even death. (2)
The driving force for “being good” for goodness sake just may be to experience our “true nature,” which the science now suggests might actually be “love.”
Our need for approval is linked to a survival-based reward chemistry directly related to the hormone dopamine. The opposite hormone, oxytocin, is produced when there is no reward – it is produced when we love.
Oxytocin is the joy, loving, giving, bonding, truth hormone that is linked to longevity and optimal health. (2)
Hedonistic vs. Eudaimonistic Giving
In one study related to giving, researchers measured the differences between these two actions:
- Giving and doing good without any expectation of personal reward. (Eudaimonistic = True Nature)
- Doing good to personally feel good. (Hedonistic)
While both create a positive emotion, only giving unconditionally elicited a positive gene regulating pattern and a measurable effect on the human genome. Giving hedonistically – for a feel good reward had a negative effect on the human genome. (4)
Moreover, negative outside influences from stress, environment, feelings, impression and who and what you expose yourself to can have an epigenetic modifying or damaging effect on the oxytocin receptor gene that can trigger anger and fear in the human brain. (2,5)
In another study, oxytocin was produced from feelings of empathy for archenemies. During a meeting of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict social group, when they described their pain from the conflict out of empathy, health-promoting oxytocin was produced by members of the opposing group. (1)
Love, which is reflected in the body epigenetically and through the production of oxytocin, can affect the mental, emotional and cognitive function of the individual. In one study, mice who were loved, licked and cuddled were better able to handle and cope with stress as adults and had higher cognitive function as adults. (7)
Love has also been shown to lengthen telomeres, which are the chromosomal caps that are linked to longer life. In one study, a loving, mindful meditation was linked to longer telomeres – suggesting that the practice of love will de-stress and extend life by having a measurable effect on the length of the telomere chromosomal caps. (9)
The microbes that make up ninety percent of the cells in the human body can be both negatively or positively affected by stress. This takes place via the gut-brain axis, which means what happens in the gut, happens in the brain and vice-versa.
In one study, when mice shared a cage with a more aggressive mouse, it reduced beneficial bacteria, decreased overall diversity of the gut microbiome, and promoted overgrowth of harmful bacteria, making animals more susceptible to infection and causing inflammation in the gut. (3)
The gut-brain connection is a complex, bi-directional communication system that not only ensures the proper maintenance of gastrointestinal balance and digestion, but likely has compounding effects on motivation and higher cognitive functions, including intuitive decision-making.
Moreover, disturbances of this system have been implicated in a wide range of disorders, including functional and inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders, obesity and eating disorders. (8)
Conclusion: Modern Science Catching Up
The emerging science suggests that the body thrives in many ways when exposed to love, rather than stress. In Ayurveda, this is called a sattvic way of loving that chooses love, giving, kindness and care over need and greed. The science now shows that living a loving, giving sattvic way of life results in the following:
- The longevity telomeres lengthen. (9)
- The beneficial microbes thrive. (8)
- The longevity- and health-promoting hormone oxytocin is produced. (2,4)
- The human genome is affected in a positive way. (4)
- Epigenetically, the brain producing happiness hormones. (2,5)