Individual altruism results in widespread progress

Screen shot 2016-06-07 at 5.27.56 PM
Dave Cutler illustration

By Carol Hart Metzker
for The Rotarian

The sun rises on a new school day.

In rural Ganguli, India, 450 students climb aboard school buses. Five years ago they could not have gone to school because the distance from their village was too far to walk.

In San Agustín, Ecuador, students used to attend classes in the town morgue when it rained, because their school had no roof. Since 2012, hundreds of children there have learned to read and write in a real classroom.

Quietly orchestrating these and other projects was Vasanth Prabhu, a member of the Rotary Club of Central Chester County in Pennsylvania. When he was growing up in India, education was not free, and he saw how hard his father worked to pay for schooling for eight children. Understanding how school can change a person’s life keeps Prabhu working to provide education to those with no access to it, he says.

“I feel that everyone is a diamond in the rough,” he says, “but it must be cut and polished to show its brilliance.” So, instead of spending his money on luxuries, he is using it to bring out that brilliance.

There are three ways we can deal with enormous problems and our emotional responses to them. We can let them overcome us until we feel too paralyzed to act. We can bury our heads in the sand. Or, we can act. And, when we help others, we often find that we benefit as well.

“Taking action allows me to exercise passion to give it a good place to go,” Prabhu says.

James Doty, director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, wrote “Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart.”

“We’re adapted to recognize suffering and pain; for us to respond is hard-wired into our brain’s pleasure centers,” Doty says. “We receive oxytocin or dopamine bursts that result in increased blood flow to our reward centers. In short, we feel good when we help.”

Caring for others brings other benefits, too.

“When we engage in activities that help, it also results in lowering our blood pressure and 

heart rate,” he notes. Research shows that it can help us live longer. And, the good deeds we do can inspire others.

On the flip side, Doty says, “People can create mistrust or fear by implying that another group is threatening our safety. When that happens, fear or anxiety makes us want to withdraw into our own group and not care for others. Hormones are released that are detrimental to long-term health. But, generally speaking, most people will be kind and compassionate to other people.”

For years, Peggy Callahan has told stories that are hard to hear. A documentary producer covering social justice issues, she also is a co-founder of two non-profits working to help people who are enslaved or caught in human trafficking. But, perhaps paradoxically, her difficult work brings her happiness, and, thanks to neuroscience research, she understands why.

“When you do an act of good, you get a neurotransmitter ‘drop’ in your brain that makes you happy,” she says. And, there’s a multiplier effect: “Someone who witnesses that act also experiences that, and remembering that act makes it happen all over again.”

She wondered how she could leverage that. The result was Anonymous Good, a virtual community and website that allows people to post stories or photos of acts of kindness they’ve carried out, observed, or received. For each act posted, website sponsors make a donation to feed the hungry, free people who are enslaved, plant a tree for cleaner air, or dig a well for clean water.

“One act of good is much more than simply one act of good,” Callahan says. “It’s part of a much bigger force.”

Like Prabhu and Callahan, P.J. Maddox, a member of the Rotary Club of Dunn Loring-Merrifield, VA, has felt the joy of tackling issues that seem too big to face. Rotary projects she has supported include funding a nurse-led clinic in war-ravaged rural Nicaragua. She also has mentored and made a Youth Exchange trip possible for a student otherwise unable to participate because of hardships at home.

“Some problems are so complicated and huge, it could be easy to say, ‘Why bother?’ ” Maddox says. “But, in addition to Rotary’s power of collective talents to make something happen, I realized that the outcome of these projects wouldn’t have been what they were if I wasn’t there. I realized that a single human being can change the world.”

As the sun sets around the globe — as students in India head back home on the school bus, as pupils in Ecuador close their books for the day, and as people in many places are well-fed, free, and happy — the world looks a little different. Because one individual extended a hand, there are people newly ready to change the world tomorrow.


Carol Hart Metzker is the author of “Facing the Monster: How One Person Can Fight Child Slavery” and a member of the E-Club of One World D5240.


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