LOS ALTOS, CA, July 29, 2012 – This summer in London an estimated 10,500 athletes from around 200 countries will compete in 26 sports for over 900 bronze, silver, and gold medals. Although the Olympic Games are just barely underway, the next couple of weeks are certain to provide many unforgettable memories for millions of people watching around the world.
But for me, regardless of what happens in London, one Olympic moment will always stand out above them all.
It was in Atlanta, 1996. Standing in line at a concession stand at the Opening Ceremonies – just after ordering a hot dog and a Coke – the most surprising thing happened. A man I’d been chatting with in line handed his credit card to the cashier and said “Let me buy you dinner.”
He was a local and wanted to make sure that as a visitor I felt welcome.
I don’t remember this guy’s name. I can’t even recall what we talked about. All I remember is his simple yet impressive display of generosity.
Although picking up the tab for someone’s meal may pale in comparison to, say, Michael Phelps’ record-setting 14 gold medals, what this man did points to a quality of thought that could very well improve the health and well being of all those millions of people watching the Games on TV.
Ask social psychologist, Elizabeth Dunn, and she’d probably say it already is.
Dr. Dunn, along with two of her colleagues from the University of British Columbia and one from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, conducted a study to determine the mental and physical impact of generosity. A game was played in which each participant was given ten dollars and told that they could either keep the money themselves or give any portion of it away.
“What we found, was that the more money people gave away, the happier they felt,” said Dr. Dunn in a podcast interview for Scientific American. “Conversely though, the more money people kept for themselves the more shame they experienced.”
That covers the mental aspect of generosity. But what does it tell us about physical health?
“The more shame people felt, the more we saw their cortisol levels rise,” Dr. Dunn continues. “This is important, because cortisol is thought to explain some of the links that we’ve seen between stress and disease. So we know that over time elevated levels of cortisol cause wear and tear on the body.”
Strip away the scientific jargon and you’re left with a simple yet equally scientific truth, first articulated some 2000 years ago: “He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully” (Second Corinthians 9:6). In other words, what you give is what you get in return, not the least of which is a happier, healthier body, all without the use of drugs or fear of harmful side effects.
Time and again since my visit to Atlanta in ’96, I’ve seen in my own experience that what the Bible says and what Dr. Dunn is finding out in her research is true: The more generous I am, the better I feel; a lesson that is certain to stick with me for many years to come.
And to think, it all began while waiting in line for a hot dog and a Coke.
Eric Nelson’s articles on the link between consciousness and health have appeared in a number of local, regional, and national publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in California.
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