A New Year’s resolution to make a difference: Help others.
Charity and volunteering not only benefit the recipient but help you become happier and healthier in the new year.
- Most New Year's resolutions are self-directed and enjoy a failure rate of about 80 percent.
- Research has shown that selfless giving can enhance happiness, improve your health, and even extend your life.
- Resolving to help others can help you keep your resolution this year.
Every New Year's Eve, we determine to make the next year better than the last. We promise ourselves that we'll eat healthier, get more exercise, save more money, and make more friends. Yet we neglect those New Year's resolutions by February, only to dust them off on December 31.
Trace those New Year's resolutions through the years, and you'll notice an unequivocal pattern. Of the 9 most common New Year's resolutions, every one is inwardly directed. They are self-made agreements to revamp our health, our body images, and our (often entirely self-perceived) inadequacies. While there's nothing wrong with self-improvement—it's a laudable goal and necessary for personal growth—it seems our resolutions are missing a vital component.
Time to change strategies. If we truly want to make next year better than the last, maybe our New Year's resolution shouldn't be to focus on ourselves but to enhance the lives of others. In fact, research suggests that helping others doesn't just benefit the recipient. It pays dividends to your health, happiness, and well-being too.
The science of selflessness
Monks in Laos receive their rice donations from a devout group of women.
There have been many studies on the effects of altruism on temperament, and they trend in a uniform direction. Giving to others makes us happier.
To pick one example, a study published in Nature Communications asked participants either to spend money on others or on themselves over four weeks. The group that spent money on others reported a greater sense of happiness than the control group, and they made more generous decisions in an independent decision-making task.
"Although it is difficult to compare results due to the differing study designs, this result is in line with that of a previous experimental study, namely, that participants reported being happier after behaving generously independent of the degree of generous behavior displayed," the researchers write. They also point out that the increase in happiness was independent of the amount donated, which was also in line with the previous study.
Other studies have proposed that regular almsgiving reduces depression, enhances emotional regulation, and helps us navigate stressful situations. One such study found that peer supporters of patients with multiple sclerosis showed "pronounced improvement on confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, depression and role functioning."
And generosity doesn't just improve our mental state; studies have shown it can boost our physical well-being, too.
A study published in Pain Management Nursing asked patients with chronic pain to become peer volunteers. The participants reported ameliorated pain and depression for several months after training, with the researchers noting the themes of "making a connection" and "a sense of purpose" emerging time and again in the questionnaires.
Other studies have reported reduced risks of hypertension and improved health in teens. A study published in the APA journal Health Psychology even suggests that selfless volunteering can lengthen your life.
"This could mean that people who volunteer with other people as their main motivation may be buffered from potential stressors associated with volunteering, such as time constraints and lack of pay," Sara Konrath, the study's lead author and a social psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research, said in a release.
Yes, despite a litany of altruistic advantages, it seems only those motivated by selflessness reap the potential rewards. The Health Psychology study found that people who volunteered out of a sense of duty and compassion lived longer, on average. Those who volunteered for self-oriented reasons did not.
"We've known for a long time that volunteering can have benefits not just to the people receiving help but also to those who give their time and energy," Konrath said. "Of course, it's reasonable for volunteers to expect some benefits for themselves. But it's ironic that the potential health benefits of volunteering are significantly reduced if self-benefit becomes a person's main motive."
An altruistic high
Let's not overstep and imagine goodwill to be some earthly elixir. Despite these lucrative results, researchers can't state with certainty that altruism is directly responsible for these bonuses in happiness, reduced stress, and blood pressure.
Study participants who donate their time and money may be more likely to pursue other life-affirming habits. It could be that altruism is the natural outgrowth of a mindset that also leads people to eat healthily, exercise regularly, and spend time with family and loved ones.
Additionally, many of these studies rely on self-reported surveys to gauge happiness and pain tolerances. Altruism may have a placebo effect that makes people feel better, especially when directly asked to rate or recount their good deeds.
With that said, there is evidence to suggest the altruist's high stems from a physiological response to one's generosity.
For example, a research team led by neuroscientist Jorge Moll at the National Institutes of Health found that the brain's mesolimbic system activates when individuals donate money. Also known as the "reward pathway," the mesolimbic system reinforces favorable behaviors through the release of feel-good hormones such as oxytocin—in the case of this study, donating was linked to social bonding.
"And given the potential benefits to individual health and happiness, this inner feeling of goodness associated with charitable giving may well originate from a conscious or unconscious awareness of its rewarding consequences," writes Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge.
Philanthropy may be linked to the "resilience factor," too. This idea posits that people with more resilience are better equipped to handle life's hardships, stressors, and unexpected losses. Thanks to an abundant supply of those feel-good hormones, philanthropists find such events less devastating and more manageable. In helping others, they have also demonstrated their capability to manifest positive change, empowering them to tackle such problems in our own lives.
"Endless research dollars have been spent attempting to unlock its mysteries in hopes of allowing more of us to sail and fewer of us to get stuck in the muck. It's still not clear what combination of genetics, upbringing, and circumstances makes one person more resilient than the next. But most experts agree that feeling powerless doesn't help—and that feeling competent and in control does," journalist Meredith Maran writes.
Resolving to succeed this new year
Then President Barak Obama volunteers to distribute Thanksgiving dinners at the Martha's Table food pantry in Washington D.C.
A year of altruism provides an admirable and valuable New Year's resolution, but it faces the same challenges any aspiration does. How do we prevent this resolution from becoming another lost cause?
Start by reframing how your mind tackles the resolution problem. First, resolve to make helping others your goal for the year. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, New Year's resolvers reported higher success rates than non-resolvers at modifying a life problem.
Rather than a vague commitment to "be more charitable," choose a specific goal that you can articulate in a clear, declarative sentence. Something like, "I will volunteer to teach an SAT prep class this school year" or "I will donate 10 percent of my annual income to the Malaria Consortium program."
Make sure your goals are SMART—that is, specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-defined. And remember to kill your inner perfectionist. You may miss a volunteer opportunity because of a rough month. An unforeseen bill may curb what you can donate. That's okay.
When looking to this resolution, philanthropy adviser Jenny Santi has some advice for making charity a part of your life. Writing for Time, she recommends:
- Find your passion. You won't be equally passionate about all causes and world problems. Find the inequities that most concern you and put your focus there.
- Give your time. Sanit argues that the gift of time can incredibly valuable to the receiver. If you can't give financially, that doesn't mean you are giving less.
- Give to organizations with transparent aims and results. A common worry is that non-profits and charities spend more funding top-heavy operations than on their cause. But a little research can illuminate which organizations produce the most benefit per dollar spent. Non-profits such as GiveWell can help with this endeavor.
- Find ways to integrate your interests and skills. It will help you keep your passion at the forefront of the effort and can benefit you professionally.
- Be proactive, not reactive. Seek out opportunities. Don't wait for them to come to you and certainly don't let a guilt-trip be the impetus to give. Remember that motivation matters.
Aristotle once said that the essence of life is to serve others and do good. Making that essence the focus of your New Year's resolution seems like a good place to start any year.
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Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
A vertical map might better represent a world dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic.
- Europe has dominated cartography for so long that its central place on the world map seems normal.
- However, as the economic centre of gravity shifts east and the climate warms up, tomorrow's map may be very different.
- Focusing on both China and Arctic shipping lanes, this vertical representation could be the world map of the future.
The world, but not as we know it<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTkwMjIyNn0.qmQfwUdjQka8JX6q4KGANagleiuucpWay5ytMenZxUU/img.jpg?width=980" id="b95e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ac088ec55c0585a93a9a310faab9a4c7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A Chinese 'vertical world map,' showing the world in a different perspective from the one we're used to.
Image: Prior Probability<p>Europe is tucked away in a corner, an appendage of Asia dwarfed by neighboring Africa. North America is stood on its head, facing the rest of the world from the top of the map — cut off from South America, which cuts a solitary figure at the bottom. Africa is justifiably huge, but equally eccentric. </p><p>The eye scouts elsewhere for a place to land: not the Indian Ocean, which dominates the middle of the map, but some terra firma. Antarctica and Australia are too small, mere stepping stones for the land mass of Asia. Ultimately our gaze is drawn toward China, the lynchpin of this unfamiliar world. </p><p>Managing to leave both poles intact, this "vertical" world map is about as far away as you can get from the classic Mercator projection – which slices up both, giving center stage to a puffed-up Europe. Perhaps this new map will become more familiar soon: It may do more justice to the world of the near future, dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic. <br></p>
China's 'ten-dash line'<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTI4MzQyNn0.sBe0oFTif4Jef1vWh1kAnUylU_QMPXT5xQjm-5aA3sA/img.jpg?width=980" id="a3b81" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="80fc6e4f5c9c1c978f698be2c8de5484" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
'China without any part left out': includes Taiwan and the islands and atolls in the South China Sea, surrounded by a ten-dash line
Image: Global Times<p>While there's no indication that this map represents the Chinese government's "official" worldview, it is no secret that China has a thing with maps – and more specifically, the country's representation on them. </p><p>In China, the country's current economic success is seen as a redress of the unequal treatment meted out by western superpowers in the 19th century. China's world dominance is a return to a more natural state of world affairs, many feel. Cartographic rectifications are a symbolically significant corollary of that sentiment.</p><p><a href="https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/12/china-cracks-down-on-politcally-incorrect-maps/421032/" target="_blank">Fines are regularly imposed</a> on companies – domestic and foreign – that fail to represent China to the fullest extent of its external borders, disputed though they may be by others (e.g. India, Taiwan and any of the countries with claims overlapping China's in the South China Sea). But the People's Republic's cartographic obsession doesn't end at China's territory itself. It also includes the country's position on the world map. <br></p>
The Kingdom at the Middle of the World<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTkwODEzMX0.SGrAZBH6iJVggFYSaIahzv9GvfEh17y1SwUNINbVicQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1774c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="99790d80a909d17a948f7c5d463d7d98" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Early Japanese color copy of Ricci's world map
Image: public domain<p>China's name for itself is <em>Zhōngguó</em>, which means 'Central State' or 'Middle Kingdom', reflecting its ancient self-image as the civilized center (<em>Huá</em>) of the world, with wild tribes (<em>Yí</em>) at the edge. That view is not unique to China. Vietnam, for example, at certain times also styled itself as the "central state" (<em>Trung Quóc</em>) – considering the Chinese in turn as the uncouth outsiders.</p><p>It may be surprising to recall, but Europeans themselves once considered their own continent a relative backwater, viewing Jerusalem as the true center of the world. That changed with the Age of Discovery, which placed Europe at the center of an ever-expanding world. Maps reflected that worldview, and largely continue to do so. That's why today's standard world map still has Europe at its center – with China off toward the periphery on the map's right-hand side. </p><p>The most notable feature of the very first major modern world map produced in China, the <em>Kunyu Wanguo Quantu</em> (1602), is that it places China firmly at the center of the world. Produced for the Chinese emperor by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, it was the first map ever to combine that perspective with modern western knowledge: it was the first Chinese map to show the Americas, for instance. </p><p>That representation may not have taken off elsewhere, but it will be instantly recognizable to Chinese students, as it's the standard format for world maps in China's schools today.<br></p>
America on its head<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMzQ5NTc0MH0.EqadI2Yp-2dPwi3VccFZelIDK4V9t0ZOfTfHjdB6wVw/img.jpg?width=980" id="97104" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2b66e8de389b3d736bc28e019e445cd0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Upside down you turn me: North America on its head, in Chinese characters
Image: Prior Probability<p>For those used to "classic" Eurocentric world maps, Europe's marginalization may come across as a bit of an upset. America's new position on the horizontal Chinese world map is less jarring: It merely moves from the left- to the right-hand side of the picture. But then there's this vertical world map, which deals a similar blow to the American land mass: divided in two and pushed to the upper and lower edges of the map.</p><p>Unfamiliar? Sure. Shocking? Perhaps. Wrong? Not really. First off, no world map is totally right, since it's mathematically impossible to transfer the surface of a three-dimensional object onto a flat surface without some distortion. And since the world is a globe, where you center that map is a matter of purely subjective choice.<br></p><p>Those choices have historical reasons. Mercator's map was not specifically designed to put an inflated Europe at the center of the world. That was just a side effect; its main purpose was to aid shipping: Straight lines on the map correspond to straight lines sailed on the seas.</p>
By 2050, a completely melted Arctic could enable the Transpolar Passage, shortening trade routes between Asia and Europe and boosting business for Alaskan ports like Nome and Dutch Harbor.
Image: The Maritime Executive<p>The vertical world map, showing the relative proximity of China (and the rest of Asia) to Europe and (even the East Coast of) North America, has a similarly maritime <em>raison d'être</em>, or it will have by mid-century. <a href="https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/the-arctic-shipping-route-no-one-s-talking-about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Experts project</a> that by 2050 (if not sooner), the Arctic will be sufficiently ice-free to enable the so-called Transpolar Passage, i.e. shipping straight across the North Pole. </p><p>That would shave more than three weeks off a traditional sea voyage between Europe and Asia, via the Suez Canal – and even be significantly faster than other northern alternatives like the Northwest Passage (via Canada) or the Northern Sea Route (hugging the Siberian coast). Since ships would not need to go through locks or pass over shallow waters, it would also remove current restrictions on tonnage per ship. <br></p><p>The only country seriously preparing for such a future: China. None of the other Arctic powers is giving the Transpolar route any strategic thought. On the other hand, China's Arctic Policy document, released in January 2018, already matter-of-factly refers to the Transpolar route as the 'Central Passage' – one of several 'Polar Silk Roads' that China seems to want to develop. And they already have the world map to go with it.</p>
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Who profits with for-profit prisons?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97ac37e6c7f6f22ec130ea2d56871701"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dB78NV2WpWc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The Labour Economics study suggests that privately-run prisons do convicts a few favors at the moment of sentencing. However, proponents of private prisons often point to other benefits when making their case. Specifically, they argue that private prisons reduce operating costs, stimulate innovation in the correctional system, and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested and return to prison.</p><p>In regard to recidivism, the research is mixed. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank">One study</a> compared roughly 400 former prisoners from Florida, 200 released from private prisons and 200 from state-run facilities. It found the private-prison cohort maintained lower rates of recidivism. However, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2005.00006.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">another Florida study</a> found no significant rate differences. And two other studies—one from <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Oklahoma</a> and another out of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0734016813478823" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Minnesota</a>, both comparing much larger cohorts than the first Florida study— found that prisoners leaving private prisons had a greater risk of recidivism.</p><p>The research is also inconclusive regarding cost savings. <a href="https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/economics_of_private_prisons.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Hamilton Project analysis</a> noted that such comparisons are difficult because private prisons, like all private companies, are not required to release operational details. In comparing what studies were available, the authors estimate the costs to be comparable and that "in practice the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers"—about $7,000 less than their public peers. They add that competition-driven innovation is lacking as the three largest firms control nearly the entire market.</p><p>"We aren't saying private prisons are bad," Galinato said. "But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn't be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go."</p>
What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?
- Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
- The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
- "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."