The Science of Sattva (and Giving)

The Science of Sattva (and Giving)

A white dove flies in front of urban high rises
Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

In This Article

What are Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas?

As the world seems to be getting more and more stressful, the Ayurvedic concept of sattvic behavior may provide some needed support to help us cope. Ayurveda describes three mental states, called sattva, rajas, and tamas.

The 3 Ayurvedic Mental Energies

  1. A sattvic mind is at peace, easily able to cope with stress, and content without the need of external stimulation.
  2. A rajasic mind is only satisfied when externally stimulated and rewarded, or stressed in the way we can become when challenged.
  3. And a tamasic mind is protective and withdrawn, even burnt out. 

In nature, these three forces balance each other. Sattva balances out the stimulating forces of rajas, which create change, and the protective forces of tamas, which when out of balance can create obstruction.

The goal in life and in nature is not to be 100 percent sattvic, but to bring rajas and tamas into balance with sattva.

Balance among all three qualities is required for a long, healthy, and joyful life. In our modern culture of over-stimulation and stress, both rajas and tamas commonly overshadow the more sublime and peaceful forces of sattva.

In this article, I’ll share all the ways science backs a sattvic lifestyle for stress management and optimal health.

Take LifeSpa’s Emotional Body Type Quiz to understand your own balance of sattva, rajas, and tamas.

Sattva is Altruism, Detachment, and More

One way to think of sattva is as a type of altruism, in which one is sincerely interested in helping others but does so without any expectation or desire for a reward or return on that investment. It’s more of a “be good for goodness sake” kind of thing.

Sattva more broadly is a state of inner peace, joy, selfless love, modesty, and compassion without attachment to the trappings of the material world.

Someone who is living sattvically is in control of their senses instead of letting their senses control them. They are free of addiction and vices and require no stimulates or sedatives like coffee or alcohol or mind-altering drugs.

The satvically balanced are honest, clean, generous, joyful, and content, but these attributes do not define the true purpose of being sattvic.

See also The Purusharthas: Ayurveda's Road Map for Finding the Meaning of Life

Sattva is About Higher Consciousness

According to Ayurveda, living a sattvic lifestyle is not only the driving force for health and longevity, but also for spiritual evolution and experiencing higher states of consciousness and our full human potential.

When a person is acting sattvically, the benefits are paid forward to others in the community.

The human body is a finely tuned instrument designed for perceiving and radiating subtle energy.

Sattvic behavior raises awareness, freeing you from needing approval and appreciation from others to be content. Instead, you are able to radiate love freely, from a higher vibrational state.  While we all need love, the sattvic mind does not require a reward from the love that you give.

Sattvic behavior encourages us to act spontaneously in support of others, rather than just for ourselves. (Science shows that when we are altruistic in this way we benefit, too.).

The science on sattvic behavior also shows that living sattvically can result in dramatic changes to our health, longevity, and happiness. Compared to living a sattvically balanced lifestyle, a predominantly rajasic, tamasic, or self-centered life has been associated with negative health trends.

See also Harness Sattva: 10 Steps to a Peaceful Ayurvedic Day

The Science of Sattva

In a study published in the journal Science, researchers found thatfolks spending money on others created a significant boost in happiness compared to when the study subjects spent money on themselves.

In another study, published in the Journal of personality and Social Psychology, the effect of spending money for personal gain versus for others was evaluated in 136 countries, including both poor and rich countries.

Regardless of wealth, even the poorest folks in the poorest countries who spent their own money on others experienced greater happiness compared to when they spent the same amount of money on themselves.

The researchers concluded that caring for others is deeply engrained in human nature.

Helping Others Mitigates Stress and Boost Longevity

Caring for others is a classic sattvic behavior. In one study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that those who cared for others lived longer.

Sadly, there is a direct relationship between stress and lifespan. People under high stress do not live as long as those who are less stressed.

In the American Journal of Public Health study, 846 volunteers were monitored for levels of stress, mortality, and whether or not they had provided tangible assistance to friends or family members within the last year.

Their mortality rate was tallied after five years. It turns out that during those five years, stress was a strong predictor of death for those who did not provide help to others.

In another study, giving to others with an expectation to be praised, liked, or appreciated had a negative effect on that person’s genetic code compared to those who gave freely without any expectations to get a return on investment.

See also Do You Give to Get? (Hedonistic vs. Eudemonic Giving)
A peace sign made of nights at light
Photo by Candice Seplow on Unsplash

Paying Sattva Forward

In a powerful study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal, researchers set out to see if happiness could spread within a social network.

They evaluated 4,739 individuals and followed them for 10 years. They found that the effect of one person’s happiness can spread three degrees, or essentially to the friends of your friends. For example, if a friend of yours becomes happy and lives within a mile of you, their happiness increases your chances of becoming happy by 25 percent. Similar effects were seen with siblings and neighbors who lived within a mile of a happy friend.

A Sattvic Attitude Encourages Sattvic Eating

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 963 grocery store shoppers were evaluated for whether or not a positive sattvic attitude was related to healthier food choices.

Thirteen supermarket chains were used in the study–from low-cost to high-cost. The study determined that supermarket shoppers with positive attitudes toward healthy eating had equally higher-quality diets, even if they shopped at low-cost supermarkets.

These findings imply that a lower income did not prevent consumers from eating high-quality, sattvic food.

The Power of Positive (Sattvic) Thinking

Many studies have been done of the harmful effects of negative thinking, including the classic test of whether folks label a glass filled to 50 percent half full or half empty.

In a study published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, participants complaining of worry and anxiety were given positive thinking training for a week. The training involved replacing worry with positive images or with positive verbal responses. Replacing worry with sattvic images or verbal responses were both equally effective at reducing levels of anxiety and worry.

A Sattvic Lifestyle Boosts Cognitive Function and Longevity

In a study published in Psychological Science, people who felt enthusiastic and cheerful–called “positive affect” in Western medicine or sattvic in Ayurveda–were less likely to experience memory decline as they aged. 

The study findings showed that memory declines with age, but individuals with higher levels of positive affect had a less steep memory decline over the course of almost a decade.

See also All You Need is Love: Longevity + Memory Benefits of Positive Thinking

Sattwa Boosts the Production of Oxytocin–the Longevity Hormone

Science suggest that when we give to and care for others, we produce more of the longevity hormone oxytocin.

While studies suggest that oxytocin declines with age, sattvic behavior has been shown to boost oxytocin levels.

In fact, a study from the Tokyo University of Science confirmed that oxytocin production is linked to expressions of love, giving, and caring. The study also showed that when oxytocin was introduced to a brain compromised by amyloid plaque, nerve signaling abilities increase, suggesting oxytocin can reverse memory impairment caused by plaque accumulation. 

Sattva, Stress, the Microbiome and Gut Health

As we now know, the relationship between the gut and the brain is bi-directional, which suggests that what affects one affects the other. Stress has been shown to alter the gut microbiome, increasing the chances of a leaky gut and digestive imbalance.

Meditation, which can create a sattvic state of peace and calm, has been shown to support a healthy response to stress in the gut, while supporting healthy gut-barrier function.

Meditation and Sattva

Noble Prize winning research by Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, was the first to link high levels of stress to the shortening to the protective caps on our chromosomes called telomeres. In one study, chronic stress was linked to dramatically shorter telomeres and a biological age that was 10 years older than their chronological age.

Follow-up studies measured the effects of meditation on telomere length. In another study, a group that meditated for 3 months had a 30 percent increase in telomere length. In another study that lasted 8 weeks there was a 43 percent increase in telomere length. In addition, meditation improved people’s views on their purpose in life, mindfulness, and positive emotionality, mental health, and cognitive function (all sattvic traits) compared to the control groups.

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Dr. John

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