What if it isn’t a dog-eat-dog world? What if caring for a dog or for a mom with Alzheimer’s makes you stronger and allows you to live longer?
Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley are challenging our long-held belief that humans are hard-wired to be selfish.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was misinterpreted by his male popularizers, the researchers say. Rather than “every man for himself,” Darwin believed that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.
Why has it taken so long for Darwin’s central revelation to be properly interpreted?
“We’ve had too many men in social science,” Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner told me in an interview. “Female scientists acknowledge that ‘fight or flight’ is part of human nature, but so is caring for people.”
This is no touchy-feely feminist theory. Hard science is showing how the human capacity to care is wired into our brains and nervous systems.
In my book Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence, I urge women who assume the whole responsibility for taking care of an elderly parent or chronically ill spouse to build a Circle of Care. Reach out to your brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors and community volunteers to help you care, because no one can perform this overwhelming role alone. You will be as stunned as I to learn how the most selfless caregivers are rewarded with greater longevity.
Stephanie Brown, associate professor of preventive medicine at SUNY-Stony Brook, followed a group of older adults caring for family members with dementia and other illnesses.
If they offered care more than 14 hours a week, they were less likely to die in a seven-year period than their peers.
“Survival of the Kindest” is not just a theory. It is becoming a revolutionary cultural movement. There are many signs that caring is gaining currency.
Keltner, who has been studying the science of this instinct for 15 years, says we are coming to the end of our Gordon Gekko-Ivan Boesky-Bernie Madoff 25-year cycle of greed. Berkeley and Stanford universities now have compassion centers devoted to the study and teaching of this theory.
It will run up against hostility among the Hobbseians. Ayn Rand wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” As Americans, we have a cultural bias against caring.
Oh, sure, we lavish our families with gifts during the holiday season, but in a capitalist system based on unbridled competition, we worry that if we care, we lose. Compassion is a woman’s word. In men, it’s cast as wimpy, when in fact it makes us stronger under stress and more highly respected by our peers.
For so long we have repeated the careless aphorism “Nice guys finish last.” But the 40 richest Americans who took the Giving Pledge to commit half their fortunes to doing good are no spring chickens. Here is my reinterpretation: Nice guys die last.
Editor’s Note: Journalist and lecturer Gail Sheehy is the author of 16 books about adult life stages, including Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos into Confidence. This story appears in USA Today