Community building and the pursuit of happiness

in community engagement, community stories

We take an interdisciplinary approach to community building at Our Blocks, and since a little science never really hurt anyone, here are some pertinent excerpts from notes I took during a recent seminar led by Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Eight ways community building can be good for you

1. It increases your social connection

In almost every study of children and adults, meaningful social connections foster greater positive emotion, personal well-being, and physical health. Social connectedness is probably the most important determinant of overall well-being. Factoids: a study in Alameda County by Berkman and Smye showed that people who reported weak social support were up to 3.1 times more likely to have died nine years later. Okay, that’s a bummer. How about this: People with strong social support live longer, report greater happiness, have lower levels of cortisol, and lower blood pressure. Since community builders are all about building social connections, your eternal life and happiness are guaranteed.

Dacher Keltner

2. It gives you more opportunities to play

Play boosts the immune response. Play is a human universal, and it builds strong bonds. Converting conflicts into dramas and play is beneficial to relationships.

3. It’s all about giving

New studies show that people derive greater pleasure in giving than in receiving. Giving activates reward centers in the brain. A study by Elizabeth Dunn found that giving away $20 makes people happier than spending $20 on themselves. Habaugh et al reported that giving to a charity produces the same activation in the ventral striatum as does receiving.

4. It gives you more chances to say thanks

Gratitude fosters personal health and healthy relations. Appreciation for loved ones uniquely relates to social well-being. Saying ‘Thank you’ greatly increases the stability of relationships. Gratitude increases worker productivity. Also makes you richer: servers who said Thank You or wrote it on receipts got 11% more tips than those in the control group. (Don’t get your hopes up: no one will ever tip you for community building)

Jason Marsh & Barbara Fredrickson

5. It gives you lots of chances to forgive (and to beg forgiveness)

Forgiveness reduces the physiological costs of stress and conflict, and can promote healthier bonds. When you do screw up and need to apologize to your community, here are the four key elements of a proper apology: (a) state what you did wrong, (b) accept responsibility, (c) offer an explanation, (d) show remorse.

6. It’ll give you stories to tell

We have a scientific mind and then a meaning-making mind that is predisposed to tell stories (Bruner). We transmit emotional conditions through storytelling. Emotion narratives build up resilience. Writing about deep emotions increases well-being and improves health (f.e by improving the immune function), and reduces stress-related physiology. It does this mainly by improving insight and avoiding the costs of suppression. True story: trauma victims who wrote down their stories (vs just recounting facts), had higher t-cell counts, better immune response, lower anxiety, better grades, and more positive emotions.

Get the book

7. It will make you wish you knew how to meditate

Breathing techniques can lower blood pressure. With eight weeks of training in mindfulness meditation (which focuses on attention, breathing, and “loving kindness”) people (including software engineers, if you can believe it) showed shifts in left frontal activation and immune response. Mindful people are in general focused on the present, and report greater optimism, greater well-being, and fewer health symptoms. Core principles of contemplation: (a) awareness of sensations, (b) awareness of mind, (c) extension of loving kindness to all. [Personal side note: I'd tried forever to learn how to meditate, but was a complete failure until I stumbled upon Guided Mindfulness Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose work was cited during this seminar.]

8. It will make you reach for a Higher Power

The sense of the sacred can be found in contemplative practice, nature, art, people, activism. Highly spiritual people report greater happiness, less depression, fare better in terms of health outcomes, and live longer. People with deep and enduring commitments to core values (like equality, respect) fare better in response to stress.

Natalie Hull

Want more? Another obsessive notetaker who attended the seminar (Natalie, shown on the right) sent me her notes, which I posted on Psychwiki (the conversion from Word to MediaWiki left some formatting lost in translation, so the notes need some cleaning up). The excerpts above come from this section of the notes.

More GGSC on Our Blocks: Compassion, Altruism, and Do-Gooding – from the Greater Good Science Center. More psychology

Take Dacher on the road: download his UC Berkeley lectures on Human Happiness

Compassion, Altruism, and Do-Gooding – from the Greater Good Science Center

in community engagement, community stories

The Greater Good Science Center is an interdisciplinary research center devoted to the scientific understanding of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior. While serving the traditional tasks of a UC Berkeley research center—fostering groundbreaking scientific discoveries—the GGSC is unique in its commitment to helping people apply scientific research to their lives.

The Compassionate Instinct – Think humans are born selfish? Dacher Keltner reveals the compassionate side to human nature.

Humans are selfish. It’s so easy to say. The same goes for so many assertions that follow. Greed is good. Altruism is an illusion. Cooperation is for suckers. Competition is natural, war inevitable. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good. These kinds of claims reflect age-old assumptions about emotion. For millennia, we have regarded the emotions as the fount of irrationality, baseness, and sin. The idea of the seven deadly sins takes our destructive passions for granted. Plato compared the human soul to a chariot: the intellect is the driver and the emotions are the horses. Life is a continual struggle to keep the emotions under control.

Even compassion, the concern we feel for another being’s welfare, has been treated with downright derision. Kant saw it as a weak and misguided sentiment: “Such benevolence is called soft-heartedness and should not occur at all among human beings,” he said of compassion. Many question whether true compassion exists at all—or whether it is inherently motivated by self-interest.

Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest. These studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive— a view which has its origins in Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.

Global Compassion – A conversation between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman

Emotions unite and divide the worlds, both personal and global, in which we live, motivating the best and the worst of our actions. Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.

Bringing different perspectives to bear—Eastern and Western, spiritual and scientific, Buddhist and psychological—the Dalai Lama and I came together in conversation and sought to clarify these contradictions, in hopes of illuminating paths to a balanced emotional life and a feeling of compassion that can reach across the globe.

Better Than Sex (and Appropriate for Kids)

By Christine Carter. Might be that sitting with your legs crossed repeating stuff like “May all beings be free from suffering,” is a little too far-out for you. I’m a scientist for crying out loud, so you can imagine how I might feel meditating while surrounded by prominent neuroscientists, which I recently did on a 7-day silent meditation retreat. Except that I actually didn’t feel silly. Why? Because there is new scientific research that demonstrates the incredible power of loving-kindness meditation: No need to be self-conscious when this stuff might be more effective than Prozac. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well-wishes towards other people.

Compassion across Cubicles – A new research movement tries to help everyone who tunes out their emotions when they punch in to work.

Five-foot tall panels divide the physician’s billing department into a maze of cubicles at Foote Hospital in Jackson, Michigan. Each cubi¬cle contains one of the 39 employees who make up the billing office staff. Most of the employees are women, many are single mothers, and they spend each day on the phone trying to collect unpaid debts owed to the hospital. The work is repetitive and may seem uninspiring. Yet the hosipital staff widely considers this department one of the best places to work at Foote. “Our department is special,” said Susan Boik, head of the billing unit. “People care about each other here.”

The Altruistic Electorate – New research debunks some conventional political wisdom.

By Jason Marsh. A new line of research has challenged some age–old assumptions about why people vote, suggesting that it’s concern for the welfare of others—not narrow self–interest—that sends people to the polls. In one study published earlier this year, Richard Jankowski, a professor of political science at the State University of New York, Fredonia, found that altruism is the single most important factor in predicting whether someone will vote. Jankowski recorded people’s responses to questions measuring their level of concern for others, and then compared those responses with their voting data from the 1994 general election. He found that if people expressed concern for helping others, they were far more likely to have voted. In fact, a sense of altruism was even more influential than people’s age, income, or education level, generally considered the most important factors for voting.

Connecting through compassion – For three decades Charles Garfield has trained volunteers to care compassionately for strangers. He shares what he’s learned about the extraordinary deeds of ordinary people.

I discovered a lost civilization on the cancer wards of San Francisco’s hospitals, hordes of anxious people facing a limited life span. I wanted to find a way to meet the psychological and social needs of these patients. It was obvious that I couldn’t meet this challenge alone, and many of my colleagues simply didn’t have the time or inclination to help. On a hunch, I turned to volunteers, who I trained in interpersonal and listening skills, and who could continue to provide peer support to patients even after the patients returned home. I soon realized I had a phenomenon on my hands: a cadre of volunteers who could respond to the human elements of illness and death—the isolation and loneliness that mainstream

Altruism in Space - What does the science-fiction series Battlestar Galactica teach us about human nature?

In the 1970s, anthropologist Robert Trivers proposed the theory of reciprocal altruism, which argues that organisms provide a benefit to others only in expectation of future reward. But Trivers’ influential theory has some holes. It doesn’t necessarily explain why someone would sacrifice her life for another, nor does it cover anonymous acts of charity. These behaviors offer a more benevolent picture of human nature, challenging the inherent selfishness presumed by Trivers’ tit-for-tat theory of altruism. So which is the more accurate depiction of altruism— and, by extension, of human nature?

Compassion & Empathy (from GoodWiki, GGSC’s user-editable website – think Wikipedia for the greater good)

Definitions and Overview – Based originally on text by Jennifer Goetz (UCB) – The construct of compassion is not clearly defined in psychological literature. Our first step was to form a working definition that would allow us to explore related constructs. We define compassion as a feeling of sorrow or concern for another person’s suffering or need accompanied by a subsequent desire to alleviate the suffering. This phrasing focuses on compassion as an emotion: a short-lived feeling that anyone may experience. We expect, however, that there are specific conditions in which people will be more likely to feel compassion, that there are differences in individual propensities to feel compassion, and that many people and cultures may view compassion as a basic human value.

More on Compassion and Altruism from the Greater Good Science Center

The Charter for Compassion – An Introduction

in community engagement, community stories

What is it?

Crafted by people all over the world and drafted by a multi-fath, multi-national council of thinkers and leaders, the Charter for Compassion asks that we practice the Golden Rule: to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It reminds the faithful (and the faithless, like me) that founders and leading sages of all the major traditions believed that the Golden Rule was the essence of ethics and religion, that everything else was “commentary”, and that it should be practised “all day and every day”. They insisted that any interpretation of scripture that led to hatred or disdain was illegitimate.

Why chart a charter?

The original reason was “so that people can look at their tradition, reclaim it, and make religion a source of peace in the world, which it can and should be”. This purpose is evolving as the charter movement evolves.

Who’s behind it?

Karen Armstrong pitched the idea, for which she won the TED Prize. Over 150,000 people from over 180 countries contributed their words. A “Council of Conscience” crafted these words into the Charter. Eighteen people formed the Council: Salman Ahmad, Ali Asani, Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, Sadhvi Chaitanya, Bishop John Bryson Chane, Sister Joan Chittister, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Mohsen Kadivar, Chandra Muzaffar, Baroness Julia Neuberger, Tariq Ramadan, Rabbi David Saperstein, Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, Rev. Peter Storey, Ha Vinh Tho, Weiming Tu, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jean Zaru. More credits here.

Does the Council of Conscience have a secret handshake?

Of course.

So where’s this Charter?

All will be revealed on November 12. Click here on 11:12 of 11/12 to win a prize.

What do I do in the meantime?

  1. Learn about it
  2. Attend or host an event
  3. Attend, ask for, or host a service
  4. Share the love
  5. Hang out on the Facebook, the Twitter (follow @TheCharter), the YouTube, and the Flickr

See also: Charter-related videos on TEDNews and blog posts on the Charter

Variations on a Theme
from the Wikipedia

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. – Luke

Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not. – Baha’u'llah

Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing. – Thales

Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself. – Baha’u'llah

Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others. – Isocrates

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. – Leviticus

Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him. – Pittacus

Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you. – Muhammad

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing ‘neither to harm nor be harmed’), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life. – Epicurus

Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others. Knowing this principle of equality treat other with respect and compassion. – Suman Suttam

Love thy neighbour as thyself. – Luke

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. – Confucius

One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires. – Brihaspati

One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him. – Socrates

Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill. – Dhammapada

Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. – T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn. – Hillel

That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind. – Muhammad

The truly enlightened ones are those who neither incite fear in others nor fear anyone themselves. – Guru Granth Sahib

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. – Matthew

What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others. – Epictetus

What you wish your neighbors to be to you, such be also to them. – Sextus the Pythagorean

The basis of faith-based community building

in community engagement, community stories

Excerpts from TED Talk by Karen Armstrong: What I’ve found, across the board, is that religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you have to do something. You behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.

And it is an arresting fact that right across the board, in every single one of the major world faiths, compassion — the ability to feel with the other in the way we’ve been thinking about this evening — is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call “God” or the “Divine.” It is compassion, says the Buddha, which brings you to Nirvana. Why? Because in compassion, when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there. And once we get rid of ego, then we’re ready to see the Divine.

Every single one of the major world traditions has highlighted — and put at the core of their tradition — what’s become known as the Golden Rule. First propounded by Confucius five centuries before Christ: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” That, he said, was the central thread which ran through all his teaching and that his disciples should put into practice all day and every day. And it was the Golden Rule would bring them to the transcendent value that he called ren, human-heartedness, which was a transcendent experience in itself.

And this is absolutely crucial to the monotheisms, too. There’s a famous story about the great rabbi, Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus. A pagan came to him and offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study it.”

And “go and study it” was what he meant. He said, “In your exegesis, you must make it clear that every single verse of the Torah is a commentary, a gloss upon the “Golden Rule.” The great Rabbi Meir said that any interpretation of scripture which led to hatred and disdain or contempt of other people — any people whatsoever — was illegitimate.

Saint Augustine made exactly the same point. Scripture, he says, “teaches nothing but charity, and we must not leave an interpretation of scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it.” And this struggle to find compassion in some of these rather rebarbative texts is a good dress rehearsal for doing the same in ordinary life.

But now look at our world. And we are living in a world that is — where religion has been hijacked. Where terrorists cite Qur’anic verses to justify their atrocities. Where instead of taking Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies. Don’t judge others,” we have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people, endlessly using scripture as a way of arguing with other people, putting other people down. Throughout the ages, religion has been used to oppress others, and this is because of human ego, human greed. We have a talent as a species for messing up wonderful things.

So the traditions also insisted — and this is an important point, I think — that you could not and must not confine your compassion to your own group: your own nation, your own co-religionists, your own fellow countrymen. You must have what one of the Chinese sages called “jian ai”: concern for everybody. Love your enemies. Honor the stranger. We formed you, says the Qur’an, into tribes and nations so that you may know one another.

And this, again — this universal outreach — is getting subdued in the strident use of religion — abuse of religion — for nefarious gains.

There’s also a great deal, I think, of religious illiteracy around. People seem to think now equate religious faith with believing things. We often call religious people believers, as though that were the main thing that they do. And very often, secondary goals get pushed into the first place, in place of compassion and the Golden Rule. Because the Golden Rule is difficult. When I’m speaking to congregations about compassion, I sometimes see a mutinous expression crossing some of their faces. Because a lot of religious people prefer to be right, rather than compassionate.

The excerpts above are from a longer version of this speech, found here: Karen Armstrong makes her TED Prize wish: the Charter for Compassion.

The Charter for Compassion launches on November 12, 2009.

A beautiful day comes to town, and other stories

in community engagement, community stories

A beautiful idea comes to town

Duncan BannerKevin KerrThe idea got to her, and she came up with something that has turned into a day-long event called Neighbors helping Neighbors. The event won’t be limited to curb cleaning, but to whatever community members think needs to be done in their neighborhoods to help clean up the look of Duncan, and to help their neighbors with tasks that they might not be able to do. “We get so busy doing our jobs and the things we need to do in life that we really don’t visit with neighbors anymore,” Bowden said. “We go to work, church, school functions for our kids day after day, but we don’t stop and find out from our neighbors if they’re doing OK. We need each other. If we’re all so busy, we miss out on finding out about each other.”

Choosing green path to jobs

The Spokesman ReviewCindy Hval – Summer jobs are hard to come by for young teens. Paper routes are scarce and often taken by adults with cars. Fast-food restaurants don’t hire anyone under 16, and day care centers have reduced the amount of baby-sitting jobs available. Yet 14-year-old Dave Howell not only earned income this summer, he also gained job skills that will serve him well throughout his life.

1600 Springfield College students, faculty, staff, help clean up Springfield

The Republican – MassLive.comGeorge W. Graham – The city is a bit cleaner and brighter and lot more neighborly today thanks to a small army of volunteers provided by Springfield College.  Some 1,600 Springfield College volunteers, clad in distinctive yellow T-shirts, fanned across the city Thursday as part of the college’s 12th annual Humanics in Action Day. “It makes us more powerful,” said 70-year-old Mattie M. Jenkins, a parent facilitator at the William N. DeBerry School where 30 to 40 volunteers volunteered their time.

Seattle Post IntelligencerSharon Hong – It’s been six years since 15-year-old Sobhi Subeh stood on two legs. Six years ago at his home in war-torn Gaza, Sobhi, at the age of 9, was severely injured when a bomb landed on his family’s farm field where he was helping his parents work. Three days passed before Sobhi awoke to find himself in a hospital with only half a left leg. Weeks passed before he got out of bed and started a new life on crutches.

Newberry welcomes Hope house to the neighborhood

Williamsport Sun-GazetteShawna T. Turner – Two agencies with the desire to help those in need have joined forces to bring six individuals – some of whom have never even had their own room – the house they deserve. Hope Enterprises and Habitat for Humanity partnered to build a new home in Newberry for the six, who are living in the Hope system.

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