Experts on the science of giving look into whether there's another possible upside to doing good: physical attractiveness.
Giving is good for you.
For years, researchers have been finding that people who support charities or volunteer for causes can benefit from being generous.
For example, they might learn new things, meet new people or make others whom they care about happier. Researchers have also found that giving may make the givers themselves happier, more confident and even physically healthier.
As experts on the science of giving, we looked into whether there's another possible upside to doing good: physical attractiveness. It may seem surprising, but across three peer-reviewed studies, we found that others rate people who give money or volunteer for nonprofits, give to their friends and even register as organ donors as more attractive. We also found that more attractive people are also more likely to give in various ways.
While our findings may raise eyebrows, we actually weren't too surprised – the personal benefits of being generous are well established in our field.
Our first study examined data from a large, nationally representative sample of older U.S. adults. We found that seniors who volunteered were rated as more attractive by interviewers than those who did not volunteer – despite the fact that the raters were unaware of respondents' volunteering status.
The second study analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of U.S. teens for several years. We found that those who volunteered as teenagers were rated as more attractive once they became young adults. We also found the reverse: Those rated as more attractive by interviewers as teenagers were more likely to volunteer when they grew up. Again, raters did not know about participants' volunteering history.
Our third study used data collected from a sample of Wisconsin teenagers from 1957 until 2011. We found that teens whose yearbook photos were rated as more attractive by 12 raters were more likely to give money over 40 years later, compared to their less attractive peers. We also found that these adult givers were rated as more attractive by interviewers than nongivers around 13 years later, when they were around the age of 72.
In all three studies, raters were asked to give their opinions on how good-looking participants were, using a rating scale where lower numbers meant less attractive, and higher numbers meant more so. Although beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, people often agree on who is more or less attractive.
A halo effect
Our results suggest that giving could make people better-looking, and that being more attractive could make people more likely to donate to charity or volunteer.
These findings build on previous research indicating that beauty confers a "halo" – people attribute other positive characteristics to them, such as intelligence and good social skills.
Those higher earnings, logically, mean that good-looking people have more money to give away. They also make more friends, which means they have larger social networks – subjecting them to more requests to donate and volunteer.
Not just a bias toward beauty
Because we were aware of this beauty bias, in all three of our studies, we statistically controlled for demographic factors such as gender, marital status and income.
We also controlled for respondents' mental health, physical health and religious participation, given their links to both attractiveness and giving.
So, we know that our results are not explained by these preexisting differences. In other words, it is not merely that more attractive people are more likely to be married, richer, healthier or happier – and therefore more likely to give.
But, there could be other alternative explanations that were not measured.
Why this happens
We would love to know whether doing good actually causes people to be more good-looking. But it is not possible to figure that out for sure.
For example, in studies on what smoking does to your health, scientists could not require some participants to be long-term smokers and other participants to avoid tobacco altogether. Such arrangements would not be ethical or even possible.
Similarly, we can't require some participants to be long-term givers and others to never volunteer or support charities. Most people give in some way, so asking them to stop would not be realistic, or even ethical.
Still, by following what a group of specific individuals do over time, we can discover whether giving at one time can predict whether someone will be more physically attractive at another time – just like we know that people who smoke have higher rates of lung cancer than those who don't.
Overall, using the best available evidence, we find that it is indeed possible that doing good today may make you appear better-looking tomorrow.
To be sure, we don't know why beauty and doing good are linked. But it's possible that people who take care of others are also more likely to take care better care of themselves. This possibility is supported by our previous research showing that volunteers are more likely to get flu shots and take other health precautions.
Taken together, our three studies confirm the link between moral and physical beauty that was described in ancient Greece by the poet Sappho: "He who is fair to look upon is good, and he who is good, will soon be fair also."
Instead, we have found another way that doing good could be good for you.
Sara Konrath, Associate Professor, Indiana University, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, IUPUI and Femida Handy, Professor of Social Policy at the School of Social Policy and Practice, University of Pennsylvania
Move over, forest bathing.
- A new study found that weekly 15-minute "awe walks" have positive effects on mental health.
- Volunteers reported higher levels of gratitude and compassion after eight weeks of these short walks.
- Researchers believe this low-cost intervention could help prevent cognitive decline in older adults.
Watch out forest bathers, you have competition.
Perhaps better put, you have an addition to your ritual. According to a new study, published in the journal Emotion, one surefire way to improve your mental health is by taking regular 15-minute "awe walks."
Researchers at the UC San Francisco Memory and Aging Center and the Global Brain Health Institute wanted to see if these focused walks in the woods could improve prosocial emotions in seniors. The team chose this cohort due to longstanding links between cognitive decline and mental health problems associated with anxiety and depression.
According to associate professor Virginia Sturm, loneliness is particularly damaging to older adults and can help drive the onset of Alzheimer's disease. She was quite happy with the results.
"What we show here is that a very simple intervention – essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward – can lead to significant improvements in emotional well-being."
The walking group was comprised of volunteers in their sixties to eighties. Each participant was told the study was about exercise, when in reality their task—taking a selfie at the end of each walk—revealed the actual intentions of researchers.
Finding Happiness Through "Awe Walks"
Importantly, participants were instructed to observe details while walking around the forest. If the goal was only exercise, volunteers were likely to power through trails without noticing their surroundings. This is where awe comes into the picture.
UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner explains the relevance, noting that feelings of awe help us feel more generous and humble, while increasing our overall well-being.
"Awe is a positive emotion triggered by awareness of something vastly larger than the self and not immediately understandable — such as nature, art, music, or being caught up in a collective act such as a ceremony, concert or political march."
The post-walk selfie is key. Week after week, their smiles grew larger. Incredibly, their bodies shrunk in the photos—the photographer stepped back to include more of nature. Instead of the normal close-ups we associate with selfies, volunteers naturally became more integrated with their environment, without any prompting from the research team.
Research on individualist versus collectivist societies shows that the members of individualist societies tend to prioritize independence and autonomy. These seem like positive qualities, though higher rates of anxiety and depression are reported in such cultures. By contrast, collectivist societies emphasize interdependence, which ultimately makes members feel like they're part of a bigger landscape.
This is exactly what was reflected in those selfies.
Credit: Rudmer Zwerver / Shutterstock
Classical Japanese art offers plenty of examples of interdependence. Humans are rarely the focal point in these landscape paintings. People only appear as part of a much larger scene. This trend cuts across Buddhist art, perhaps unsurprisingly given the philosophy stresses collectivity. Happiness levels tend to be higher in these societies than in individualist nations.
Can a 15-minute awe walk change all of that? Not completely, but we'll take whatever help we can get. As mythologist Joseph Campbell once remarked, "awe is what moves us forward." He cited awe as a primary driver in the creation of mythology: the overwhelming sensation that you're part of something grand.
As Sturm says, this is a low-cost, worthwhile means for alleviating distress and filling people with gratitude and compassion. Given the state of the world, those qualities are in high demand.
"I find it remarkable that the simplest intervention in the world – just a three-minute conversation at the beginning of the study suggesting that participants practice feeling awe on their weekly walks – was able to drive significant shifts in their daily emotional experience. This suggests promoting the experience of awe could be an extremely low-cost tool for improving the emotional health of older adults through a simple shift in mindset."
The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.
- Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
- The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness, while attractive people underrate their looks.
- Why this happens is unclear, but it doesn't seem to be due to a general inability to judge attractiveness.
There's no shortage of disparities between attractive and unattractive people. Studies show that the best-looking among us tend to have an easier time making money, receiving help, avoiding punishment, and being perceived as competent. (Sure, research also suggests beautiful people have shorter relationships, but they also have more sexual partners, and more options for romantic relationships. So call it a wash.)
Now, new research reveals another disparity: Unattractive people seem less able to accurately judge their own attractiveness, and they tend to overestimate their looks. In contrast, beautiful people tend to rate themselves more accurately. If anything, they underestimate their attractiveness.
The research, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, involved six studies that asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers. The studies also asked participants to predict how others might rate them.
In the first study, lead author Tobias Greitemeyer found that the participants who were most likely to overestimate their attractiveness were among the least attractive people in the study, based on average ratings.
Ratings of subjective attractiveness as a function of the participant's objective attractiveness (Study 1)
"Overall, unattractive participants judged themselves to be of about average attractiveness and they showed very little awareness that strangers do not share this view. In contrast, attractive participants had more insights into how attractive they actually are. [...] It thus appears that unattractive people maintain illusory self‐perceptions of their attractiveness, whereas attractive people's self‐views are more grounded in reality."
Why do unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness? Could it be because they want to maintain a positive self-image, so they delude themselves? After all, previous research has shown that people tend to discredit or "forget" negative social feedback, which seems to help protect a sense of self-worth.
To find out, Greitemeyer conducted a study that aimed to put participants in a positive, non-defensive mindset before rating attractiveness. He did that by asking participants questions that affirmed parts of their personality that had nothing to do with physical appearance, such as: "Have you ever been generous and selfless to another person?" Yet, this didn't change how participants rated themselves, suggesting that unattractive people aren't overestimating their looks out of defensiveness.
The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness. Does that bias sound familiar? If so, you might be thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency. Why? Because they lack the metacognitive skills needed to discern their own shortcomings.
Greitemeyer found that unattractive people were worse at differentiating between attractive and unattractive people. But the finding that unattractive people may have different beauty ideals (or, more plainly, weaker ability to judge attractiveness) did "not have an impact on how they perceive themselves."
In short, it remains a mystery exactly why unattractive people overestimate their looks. Greitemeyer concluded that, while most people are decent at judging the attractiveness of others, "it appears that those who are unattractive do not know that they are unattractive."
Unattractive people aren't completely unaware
The results of one study suggested that unattractive people aren't completely in the dark about their looks. In the study, unattractive people were shown a set of photos of highly attractive and unattractive people, and they were asked to select photos of people with comparable attractiveness. Most unattractive people chose to compare themselves with similarly unattractive people.
"The finding that unattractive participants selected unattractive stimulus persons with whom they would compare their attractiveness to suggests that they may have an inkling that they are less attractive than they want it to be," Greitemeyer wrote.
Is the cult of youth what we really want trailing us into the afterlife?
But what about us – the once-mortal – who will go on to inhabit the heavenly real estate? What form will our bodies take? Not all religions posit bodily resurrection. But those that do tend to depict them as young.
I wonder: Is the cult of youth what we really want trailing us into the afterlife?
The righteous are young
According to Christian orthodoxy, if you're worthy of being raised from the dead, you'll be resurrected in the flesh, not merely as spirit, with a body restored like that of Christ, who died at 33.
In heaven there will be no whip marks, no scars from thorns, no bodily wounds. If eaten by cannibals or bereft of limbs from battle – some medieval people worried about wholeness in such conditions – people would regain their missing parts. The body would be perfected, as the Apostle Matthew promised in the New Testament when he wrote, "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear."
In Islam, in the traditional Hadiths – the commentaries that succeeded the Quran – the righteous are also youthful, and apparently male. "The people of Paradise will enter Paradise hairless (in their body), beardless, white colored, curly haired, with their eyes anointed with kohl, aged thirty-three years," according to Abu Harayra, one of Mohammed's companions.
The afterlife isn't all based on sacred text. Folklore, cultural traditions and audience demand also shape its images.
Western art has, over the centuries, located the promise of posthumous perfection in bodies that are youthful. British historian Roy Porter writes that the art of the Renaissance (in which bodies were first portrayed with muscles and motion) showed "rosy-fleshed and even lithe bodies rising elegantly from the earth, in an almost balletic movement." Think of the muscular naked bodies in Luca Signorelli's "Resurrection and the Crowning of the Blessed" in Orvieto cathedral.
A section of Luca Signorelli's fresco 'Resurrection of the Flesh.' (Cappella di San Brizio/Wikicommons)
Throughout history, some people died in their 90s, as they do now. But the luck of having lived a long life on Earth, with its wisdom and experience symbolically etched on the face and signaled by the august whiteness of hair, apparently did not cross over onto the other side.
In such visions of heaven, there would be no signs of our ordinary mortal passage. No wrinkles. No disability. No old age. "Perfected" means never having grown up even into the middle years.
Ageist and ableist, these traditions promote cults of youth. The New Testament, the Quran, the Italian Renaissance, the Romantic era – all sing the same decline-oriented, exclusionary song.
On our screens, forever young
Jump to the myths of the modern world, and the aftercare of the fit juvenile body remains precious. In vampire stories, for example, the undead bloodsuckers appear young and attractive. When their true age is revealed, it turns out that they're often thousands of years old.
"Who wants to see old ghosts?" critic Martha Smilgis wrote in a 1991 Time feature about a recent spate of films that featured young, lithe actors populating the afterlife. "Hollywood wants to remain forever young," she continued, "and what better way than to extend yourself into another life?"
In the award-winning "Black Mirror" episode "San Junipero," the fantasy of forever young becomes a reality: The dead can upload themselves into a simulation to live out their afterlives as their younger selves.
In other television shows about the afterlife, one way to avoid old ghosts is to simply have the characters all die young. And so in series like "Dead Like Me" and "Forever," freak accidents on Earth ensure the resurrected are fit and attractive.
The best version of you
Because we now live in an age of longer, healthier lifespans – and because I'm in my 70s – I'm nonplussed by seeing the cult of youth persist.
People I know in later life are healthy. Some are handsome. Unlike the great unwashed of previous epochs, old people too now bathe. We brush our teeth, so we don't lose them before 40. Syphilis, in the rare event that we contract it, can be cured. If we have partners, we enjoy sex.
I can understand idealizing youth in this life, but only by considering the ageism that people endure in the workplace. Sure, a midlife job seeker, desperately unemployed, tweaks his date of birth on his resume because he is considered "too old" at too young an age. A woman dyes her hair and gets a little Botox for the same reason.
But in heaven too, where capitalism is gratefully left behind? Surely part of the Rapture is not having to depend on a boss and a paycheck. You can't be fired, downsized or made redundant. If heaven means nothing else, it works like a good labor union, assuring blessed tenure.
So might we disrupt the ancient adolescent fantasies that, translated to our contemporary era, seem so anachronistic? I am no longer a teenager. I have put away on Earth – as it should be in heaven – the peer pressures, the showy embarrassing décolletage, shaving my legs, the comical hair styles and the beach-blanket boozy fantasies of the hourglass figure.
My earlier face would look weird to me were it suddenly to appear tomorrow over the bathroom sink. If heaven were furnished with mirrors – an unlikely scenario – I am certain I would want to behold the face I have now. Whatever its earthly faults in the eyes of Hollywood plastic surgeons and the tiresome fashion magazines, it has the virtue of familiarity.
Heaven is supposed to be the entrance to a fuller, or better, future life – what mortals fail to obtain in the real world. Does that now mean Club Med for young people? Fort Lauderdale at spring break? With more clothing? Or perhaps less?
Mormons are promised that they will spend eternity with their kin. For many people now, paradise is, more than anything, a place where we will meet loved ones. Often a beloved parent. I would have no interest in a heaven in which my mother appeared to be 33, when I scarcely knew her as a six-year-old. Nor would I want her to look six decades younger than I do, were I to arrive in my 90s.
She died at 96, and I want her to have the face I loved in her very old age. There she would be, still smiling at me benignly, as she does in a photograph I see every day of my aging-into-old-age life.
Heaven can keep the pleasant streams, the divine choirs and the luscious apricots. It can heal us of pain. We can be loved for who we are. If all that, who needs to be younger as well? I believe our dreams of the afterlife need to challenge the idée fixe that only the appearance of youth is valuable.
Some of us with longer lives don't think it perfection to have the signs of who we are now, erased for eternity. We have a finer dream of human solidarity.
Recently, my friend and 13.8 writing colleague Adam Frank, wrote a moving essay on the joy of finding things out. Today, and in celebration of the nearing holidays, I will consider another joyful aspect of being a human being—the joy of wondering.
Wonder: The word itself is somewhat magical. As a verb, to wonder is to ponder, to muse on, to conjecture about. As a noun, wonder relates to awe, to fascination, to beauty. So, to wonder about wonders is to ponder about beauty, to muse about what fascinates us.
It is a privilege of being human—and one that we often take for granted—that we are curious creatures with a capacity for wonder. Anyone can tell of an experience when they've witnessed something magical, something that resonated with their core essence, however inexplicable or mysterious. It may happen when we behold the countless stars in the night sky, or when we feel small while standing under a huge peak, or the drama of hiking on a high cliff overlooking the crashing waves down below, or watching a mother nursing her baby, or witnessing an ephemeral double rainbow after a storm.
We are the species that sees but doesn't only instinctively respond to what we see; we internalize it, engage with it emotionally, and try to find meaning in the moment. We experience life in a many-dimensional manifold that blends perception with a multicolored subjective response. And we love the way this richness of the now makes us feel, even if we have no clue how it all happens.
Behind our capacity for wonder lies a huge mystery. Why do we do it?
If you are a pragmatist, you must try to answer to what purpose we wonder. How does it serve us evolutionarily? To explore our surroundings has been essential to our survival. That's obvious. Without over-sentimentalizing it, I don't imagine our ancestors would always tour their surroundings in wonderment. The constant need for food and shelter, and the pressures of bad weather or encroaching enemies, were not so evocative.
But on the other hand, they didn't react to their surroundings like a pack of wolves, roaming the fields in search of food without a deeper sense of appreciation for where they were. If cultures across the world and across time deemed certain places as being magical, they weren't simply thinking of them in terms of their practical usefulness as a food source or shelter. There was an intangible quality to them, a quality that led to an inexplicable sense of attachment: This place is not like other places; here, we feel a sense of the transcendent, of deep connection. Here, we will erect a monument, a totem, a stone circle, a temple, so that we can come back over and over again and celebrate our mysterious attraction to it.
Many of us that enjoy being out in the woods, in the ocean, in the mountains, in nature, can relate. We may not call these places magical or relate to them in transcendent ways (although we could, and many do). But we do sense that they are different, that they have a message of some kind to tell us. The ancients would say that here is where the gods spoke; the temple was a marker for the sacred spot.
Beautiful and ominous
Last summer, I was running with my wife in a section of the Appalachian Trail near my home in Hanover, New Hampshire. There was no one in sight. After climbing a steep hill, we reached a solemn pine forest, one that seemed to have been there for centuries (probably not, though). The pine needles along the trail muffled our steps. Somehow, when we reached that part of the forest, we couldn't hear a sound. The chickadees and woodpeckers stayed out; the wind stopped. As we moved deeper into the forest, the trees became denser and it grew darker. It was at once beautiful and ominous.
Suddenly, a beam of sunlight cracked open the clouds and descended through the high branches to illuminate a huge granite boulder. The dark green moss covering the stone glistened in a thousand sparkles. We stopped dead on our tracks and gasped at the simple beauty of the moment. “This is why so many ancient cultures deemed certain places as being magical," said my wife. When life gives you such gifts, it is impossible not to feel a sense of reverence and gratitude. But such experiences are only privy to those open to receive them.
We have moved away from our natural roots and created a fake world of walls around us, walls that keep us away from one another and from the world out there. We have lost our sense of enchantment with Nature, the sense of awe our ancestors had when they experienced the world and deemed it sacred.
To nurture the joy of wonder is to be attuned to the simple beauty of the unexpected. It may reveal itself in the silence of an old dark forest, or in that strange uncomfortable warmth we feel when we witness something that defies rational explanation. As so many explorers, artists, and scientists know, there is endless wonder in flirting with the unknown.